Painter Marion Peck has been a familiar presence at the Davidson Gallery in Seattle, where her whimsical take on surrealism has earned her a loyal following. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has followed her to her new gallery north of downtown, where he discovered that the move was about more than simply changing one set of walls for another. Here is his report.
The art world is populated by hosts of semi-independent tribes, each with its own celebrities, magazines, and place on the aesthetic pecking order. Realist painters, once at the top of the heap, are these days confined to a sub-basement, fed the odd scrap of critical recognition. Other groups, like Western artists, are content to escape critical notice entirely, satisfied with their sellout annual shows at the Cowboy Hall of Fame and enormously well-heeled clients.
An artistic sub-group so new it has yet to be awarded a permanent name has established a Seattle beachhead at Belltown’s Roq La Rue Gallery. Roq La Rue is one of a handful of galleries on the West Coast showing art called variously lowbrow or Pop Surrealism, a scruffy stew of over-the-top styles ranging from velvet painting to hot rod art, with cartooning, fantasy illustration, and Japanese animation thrown in for good measure.
This month’s two-women show is a good introduction. On one side of the gallery are the cartoon-noir paintings of Los Angeles artist Camille Rose Garcia. The pictures feature a cast of ink-line characters that includes catatonic big-eyed children, bats, rubber duckies, and octopi. Garcia adds gloom and atmosphere with clouds of spatters and toxic-looking, multicolored glazes and drips. To deepen the mood further, there are occasional floating skulls and depressive, hand-written captions. Her work, while inventive, is repetitive and heavy-handed, and thus wears out its welcome quickly.
Far more intriguing are Marion Peck’s hilarious goofs on traditional oil painting genres hanging on the opposite wall. A highly-skilled technician with a Bothers Grimm imagination, Peck clearly has a love/hate relationship with art history. Her painting, "Wiener Venus," for example, is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the reclining female nude, with a composition reminiscent of Titian’s, "Venus of Urbino," and the come-hither stare of Manet’s "Olympia." A lovely, Italianate landscape lies in the background, framed by a marble pillar and velvet drapes. The twist here is the nude herself, her luscious body impossibly elongated, like a mutant superhero.
A similar mischief inspires Peck’s portrait of the imaginary aristocrat, "Lady Henrietta Swanneshald, Mistress of Ethelred the Unready," Appropriately set in an oval-shaped, antique frame, the image of milady is both a Renaissance fashion statement and a showpiece for Peck’s ability to paint lace, jewels, and coiled hair. Here the fly in the ointment is not so much the slightly elongated proportions, but the ridiculously crossed eyes — milady indeed.
Of a somewhat different nature is the panel, "Albert’s Song," a send-up of the sentimental art of Victorian England. A sad-eyed violinist with a frilly white dress and a giant blue hair bow plays a dirge to a dead mouse, its tiny blood-soaked corpse lying at her feet while a nearby candle, that quintessential symbol of life’s brevity, goes out. Peck strikes a perfect balance between kitsch and gross-out, and not without a touch of warmth for her subject.
Yet another of Peck’s inspirations is vintage children’s book illustration. "The Happy Captain" is painted steaming into a fairy tale harbor, grinning through white whiskers while ringing his tugboat bell. The spin here is created by a host of incongruous details — schools of surfacing, robotic fish, a bird holding aloft a cryptic German banner, the tugboat flag with the Sanskrit symbol for OM, and the captain himself, his hugely out of proportion head barely fitting through the cabin window.
Galleries, not curators, have been the first to seize upon the lowbrow and Pop Surrealist movement. In response, museum shows and critical analysis have begun to follow. By moving from Pioneer Square to Belltown, Marion Peck has placed her work squarely in the midst of this emerging art movement — one in which she seems likely to become an important figure.