Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: John Anderson at Paul Mahder Gallery

On the same night as the opening of "Aint Natural" at the Hammerfriar Gallery, Paul Mahder Gallery* opened a retrospective of work by John Anderson (1932-2011). Anderson is a new artist to me, although he appears to have a solid reputation. He was long the assistant of painter Gordon Onslow Ford, early a surrealist but later occupied with depicting inner realms of consciousness and trying to escape from what he seems to have seen as the tyranny of the visual. Ford was mentor to Anderson and Anderson's work shows a similar concern with capturing expressions of inner consciousness.

I'm always suspicious of art that seems to rely heavily on theory or that claims to be entirely spontaneous and unguided. The idea of representing inner consciousness without reference to the visual is an intriguing one, but is it really possible? What does consciousness look like? The surrealists looked to dreams for images of the unconscious, but that approach was inherently contradictory; dream images are recalled images from waking life (which isn't to say surrealism didn't yield some good art). Ford and Anderson apparently wanted to directly depict a world beyond consciousness—Ford emphasizing speed and spontaneity, Anderson taking a more deliberate approach, at times trying to work in a trance-like state.

What does inner consciousness look like according to John Anderson? Inner consciousness appears to be crackling with radiating energy and filled with particles—points, tiny circles, dots, blobs. Read the dots as stars and the images evoke the infinite. Read them as subatomic particles and they evoke the infinitesimal. Much of the appeal of Anderson's work comes from this ambiguity; are we floating in space or are we on Jules Verne's fantastic voyage?

Another ambiguity is created by the way Anderson's visual vocabulary simultaneously evokes physical phenomena on the one hand, living creatures on the other. We see lines radiating from a bright spot and surrounded by a field of dots; rings of increasing size as they move away from a point of apparent origin; wave forms; star clusters; entire galaxies; lines that suggest the tracings of subatomic particles in a particle accelerator; electrostatic charges in a Van de Graaff generator; excited plasma; electron flows. All these images come to mind. Some of the paintings put me in mind of Dr. Frankenstein's lab equipment (or at least the Hollywood depiction of his lab equipment). At the same time, it's easy to see the circles filled with radiating lines as diatoms or pollen grains greatly magnified. That is, much of Anderson's imagery is as suggestive of microscope views of living things as it is of physics experiments. Volvox, an old friend from high school biology class, is here. Cells and their nuclei and fields of protoplasm are here, some with embedded mitochondria and with vacuoles. The double helix of the DNA molecule is here.

The paintings by Anderson in the new Paul Mahder show seem to make abundant reference to the visual—specifically to the visual language of physics and biology. Thus, I wonder how successful Anderson can be said to have been at escaping the conscious, the visual. Perhaps it doesn't matter. I don't belittle the attempt. The process is important, and the art that resulted from years of effort toward achieving a goal (however elusive) is compelling. John Anderson at Paul Mahder Gallery will be on display through June 2015 (the gallery website does not give an end-date in June). Well worth a visit for the John Anderson work and a great deal of other good work in this very large display space.

*Paul Mahder is also in Healdsburg (and quite new, apparently; I discovered it by chance only a couple of weeks ago)—222 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, CA 95448, (707) 473-9150).

Beekeeping: Bees Swarmed, Bees Captured (May 4–May 5, 2015)

Our bees swarmed yesterday. Rather conveniently, they initially landed in an accessible place in our next-door neighbor's yard. It was fairly easy to get them into a box and seal them up for the night. I was going to try to sell them (a swarm of bees goes for about $100 these days), but, with no immediate takers on Craig's List, I went down to Western Farm Center in Santa Rosa and got a basic hive set-up to give them a home at least temporarily. I may sell the whole shebang if someone's interested. I may keep them. For the moment, anyway, we now have two beehives. I'm giving them a little supplemental food (the sugar water feeder visible in the photo) to get them started. It's amazing how quickly bees will settle in to a new space. They start drawing comb almost immediately. Bees line up at the entrance fanning their wings, spreading the queen's pheromones, encouraging stragglers to come into the hive. I cut the swarm from a half-dead juniper. Inevitably, pieces of the tree got mixed up with the bees. Within minutes, housekeeper bees were pushing debris out from the front of the hive box. They're behaving as if they never left home. Next task will be to paint the exposed wood areas.

Art I'm Looking At: "Ain't Natural" at Hammerfriar Gallery in Healdsburg

I attended the opening of the latest show at Hammerfriar Gallery in Healdsburg on May 2. The show, called "Ain't Natural," brings together four superb collage artists working in the Bay Area--Jenny Honnert Abell, John Hundt, Sherry Parker, and Scott Wilson.

Collage unites the four artists but they work in very different styles. Jenny Honnert Abell's work combines the surreal with religious iconography. Brought up a Catholic, she attended parochial girls' schools through high school. While explicitly religious themes don't seem central to her work, clearly the imagery of the church made a lasting impact on her sensibilities. In talking with her about her collages I sensed in her an uneasiness about making fun of the religious imagery she appropriates, a hard-to-shake compulsion to take it seriously, at least at some level. Yet, the work is irreverent. The show includes several small pieces on worn but fancy book covers, in themselves evocative of churchly things like decorated vestments. Onto these covers she's attached perches for Jesus-headed birds that somehow manage to look content and not unnatural--the serenity of expression of the Jesus heads doing its work. In other pieces on display, bird heads grow out of tree branches. Pictured here is a somewhat different piece entitled "The Monroe Flower" that I liked for its use of color and the multiple levels of enclosed detail it employs.

John Hundt seems to work exclusively with engraved book illustrations. He carefully cuts out architectural fragments, figures, animals, snippets of scenery and other elements with a tiny pair of scissors and assembles the pieces to create imaginary spaces that are clearly unreal but spaces that use perspective and subtle overlaps to trick the eye into seeing them as plausible, inhabitable. I'm reminded of the photographic work of Jerry Uelsmann. Merged and blended contradictions in Hundt's work involve not only physical space but also time; inevitably the old engraved images are evocative of something old-fashioned--we no longer illustrate books with engravings much and the subjects Hundt chooses are often historical--but, at the same time, the strange juxtapositions seem modern--at least modern in the sense the word is used in art history.

Sherry Parker is among the most delightfully inventive artists I've encountered in the Bay Area. Her work is consistently of the highest caliber. She has an exquisite sense of composition. Her subtle color sense is equally impressive. Most especially, though, I like her work for the slightly edgy whimsy she nearly always achieves. Bizarre creatures, part human, part machine, inhabit her surreal landscapes. These are dream worlds, yet they are familiar enough to be both seductive and deeply unsettling. They are inviting and a little frightening at the same time.

To take just one example, "Yellow-throated Lookout Bird" is immediately amusing because of its title, which plays on the conventions of real bird names, and many of Parker's titles are funny. Here we see a lone, one-legged sentinel on what looks like a coastal rock, keeping its squinty eye out for signs of approach. But its ability to see is illusory. The bird's eye is just a screw at the base of a blade from a pair of clippers--a rather long, decurved blade from a nasty-looking pair of clippers. The antenna, perhaps, takes in more useful information?

Scott Wilson's work is also slightly disturbing, but in a different way. Made largely from illustrated medical texts, the collages are interesting for their formal qualities of composition and attractive for their combinations of pinks and beige and palest orange--the colors of flesh and viscera. But many of the images used illustrate pathologies, so this is diseased flesh we are looking at. Collage titles name the diseases. Wilson presents his odd combinations as if they are plates in an actual text--deformities to be studied, learned from, repelled by. Abstract shapes often overlay or augment the human body parts suggesting early 20th century Russian abstraction. As a child, I remember being given an encyclopedia of the insect world. It was a very thick volume. I don't remember the text, but the plates were photographic and numerous. Each plate was an array of related insects--bizarre insects, large and small. Round beetles, oblong beetles, elongated beetles. Beetles with antennae longer than their bodies. Grasshoppers of every description. Walking sticks. All in black and white. Repellent yet fascinating at the same time. I spent hours looking at that book. I was immediately reminded of it when viewing Wilson's collages. They are likewise simultaneously fascinating and repellent.

Hammerfriar Gallery is at 132 Mill Street, in Healdsburg. The "Ain't Natural" show will run through June 22. Well worth a visit.
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