Amongst the many recent changes in the Pioneer Square art scene is the arrival of an ambitious new gallery, Pacini Lubel. The gallery founder, Jerry Slipman, has announced his intention to make contemporary art depicting the figure a central focus of his exhibits. On a recent visit to the gallery, KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, found provocative work representing a wide variety of approaches and techniques.
Rebecca Kardong is a recent graduate of the ceramics department at the University of Washington, one of the strongest such departments in the country. Current and recent faculty members, such as Doug Jecks, Patty Warashina, and Akio Takamori have gained national representations for their offbeat take on the human figure, and Kardong fits squarely in that tradition.
The current show, her first one-person exhibit, is a potent collision of art history and sexual politics. Entitled, Fixation, the show consists of seven beautifully sculpted female torsos, molded in clay, baked and then surfaced — with paint, presumably — to mimic the look of living flesh.
Realism versus idealism, in fact, is one of the themes of the exhibit. Deeply aware of the long history of the ideal feminine form in art, Kardong has been careful to include all-too-real sags and wrinkles, discolorations and asymmetries in the depictions of her women. Further subverting the classical ideal, Kardong has affixed pubic hair to all of her creations — a highly charged detail that references one of the more notorious anecdotes in modern art history, the saga of John Ruskin. Ruskin, the leading art authority of Victorian England, was reportedly unable to consummate his marriage after discovering that his wife, unlike the classical sculptures he had studied, had genital hair. Perhaps an encounter with Kardong’s women would have better prepared him for the wedding night boudoir.
Kardong has issues not just with Ruskin sex hangups, but with men’s view of women in general. Her figure fragments — standing, seated, or reclining — all end at stumps where the legs, arms and head should be. Although this is familiar to us from the many examples of half-ruined ancient sculptures, Kardong is also using the convention as a sort of complaint — isn’t this all men are interested in?
Interestingly, some of Kardong’s earlier sculptures included the full female figure, but with the less erotic parts — hands, head, feet — either shrunken or missing. With this show, they are eliminated completely.
How the limbs and head are lopped off is also given consideration, and each sculpture accomplishes the deed a bit differently. On one reclining nude (in its stomach-down, back-arched pose, the most sexual of the women) the neck and arms end cleanly, ringed by a textured edge like a sawed-off tree. Another, upright nude still retains fleshy appendages where the arms once were, suggesting surgical amputation. And finally, one women has her stumps delicately trimmed with real lace, making her seem more naked then nude, suggesting some sort of serious fetish.
The ultimate message of this provocative exhibit is far from clear. While the pieces are meant to both attract and repel, the limited range of body types — everyone is slim, healthy-looking, and white — and passive poses play into American male archetypes far more than they subvert them.
Also mixed in its messages is a show of figure paintings by Cornish graduate Eric Bashor. Small portraits on panel based on photos taken in the bright sun, Bashor’s work is a bit like an abstract expressionist version of Chuck Close. Like Close, Bashor uses the portrait head as a point of departure for explorations in the limits of representation. Unlike Close, Bashor depicts his heads with oil paint trowelled on as thickly as the sweet curlicues on a wedding cake, using supercharged colors that appear to melt and flow together before one’s eyes.
The mixed message is the result of the impersonal quality of the images themselves. Unlike the heads of Chuck Close, which always retain a feeling of personality and expression, Bashor’s portraits are a bit vacant, the eyes literally obliterated underneath a deep pool of tar-like black. The black flows liberally elsewhere, one simple color and texture filling in every surface originally in shadow. The paintings work best close-up, when one can fully appreciate the go-for-broke technique that Bashor uses to build up his images, piling on enough paint in one studio session to fill a dozen ordinary canvases, making seemingly arbitrary choices of color and stroke that somehow work from a distance.
Ironically, the strongest piece in the Bashor show is not a painting at all, but a heroically-scaled drawing of a standing figure in a garden, a collage of several dozen paper sheets pinned to the wall. Here the flowing black that defines more than half the figure is a natural expression of the media being employed, in this case black ink. The small room with this drawing mounted on its back wall seems almost like a shrine to the stalwart gardener, and the staggered arrangement of the many paper sections makes the supporting wall a participant, rather than merely a support, for the image.
Elsewhere in the gallery, there are several strong works by ceramic sculptors with upcoming shows, like Michael Lucero and Tip Toland, an encouragement to return for gallery visits in months to come.