`Action figures' draw a reaction

Artists photographed while dressed as many over-the-top characters

ArtReview

May 30, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

With the recent warnings of possible future terrorist attacks, the whole subject of America's relationship to Islamic fundamentalism has become extremely touchy, and certainly no laughing matter. Yet artists can be notoriously irreverent, even to the point of making us chuckle at our own worst fears.

The group show at St. Paul Art & Design Gallery brings together four young artists who all used to be roommates: painters Alex Kondner and William Marshall, sculptor Joshua Hershkovitz and photographer Paul Stoppi. Kondner, Marshall and Stoppi also create pieces together as the collaborative group Tripleneck.

Kondner and Marshall's work is in the abstract expressionist idiom, often combining large-scale paintings on canvas or panel with wax encaustic and found objects.

Rauschenberg's famous "combine" paintings, in which the artist affixed various found objects directly onto his canvases, seem to have provided a model. Kondner, whose works deal with themes of revolutionary change and personal growth, has fastened obsessively neat rows of tiny rubber baby bottle nipples to the surfaces of his pieces, perhaps a sly reference to the infantile component of all human behavior.

Stoppi's digitally manipulated photographs capitalize on the computer's ability to generate uncanny mirror-image replicas of ordinary scenes. In this show he's represented by a pair of mirror-image landscapes shot from the window of an airliner; the digitally flipped pictures seem to depict a futuristic aluminum aircraft slicing above the clouds. Sculptor Hershkovitz, the only artist in the show who is not also a member of Tripleneck, is represented by a couple of roughly finished minimalist pieces that make oblique reference to the human body.

But by far the most notable work in the show is Tripleneck's provocative, hilariously over-the-top performance piece collaboration on the theme of terrorism.

For the performance, documented by Stoppi's camera, the artists dressed themselves up as dolls packaged in the manner of children's action figures - "Jihad Joe," "Taliban Barbie," etc. Each figure is fastened in its presentation box with various accessories - knives, pistols, Molotov cocktails and cunning red and black "suicide belts" packed with nails and C-4 plastic explosives.

The texts accompanying these pieces parody the glib marketing patter of toy manufacturers. "Jihad Joe," for example, is touted as a "strapping, packing, rental car bashing" terrorist who "never leaves the party alone," while the suicide-belt-wearing Barbie is "hot enough to pass through any checkpoint, smart enough to work her way right into the middle of the crowd. She's the life of the party till someone loses their head."

There's a sort of macabre humor here that, in light of Sept. 11, may seem a little tasteless until one realizes that murder, mayhem and sex are precisely what toy manufacturers have been peddling for years under the guise of innocent childhood fantasy. So the piece is a biting commentary on the moral myopia that makes killing and maiming a form of entertainment and the toy industry's remarkable ability to turn such spectacles, however gruesome, into mass-market children's fare.

The show runs through July 19, and there will be a closing reception that day from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The gallery is at 2524 St. Paul St. Hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and by appointment. Call 410-889-0921.

At Estreya

In its second show since opening in April, Estreya Gallery in Hampden is presenting paintings and drawings by New York artist Eric Holzman.

Holzman's incredibly labor-intensive easel paintings of landscapes and nudes recall the Italian Renaissance technique of sfumato, the blurring or softening of sharp outlines by subtle and gradual blending of one tone into another.

Many of his pieces have the feel of Old Master paintings or ancient Roman wall frescoes without, however, any hint of the philosophical, religious or pictorial symbolism that animated the earlier eras' art.

"I am not a realist, though in part I aspire to be one," Holzman writes in a statement accompanying the exhibition.

"For me, the further I can stretch pictorial representation, while remaining in perception, the closer I get to the mysterious snap of each successive moment, as the miracle of existence is revealed."

Such speculation makes Holzman's art sound a lot fuzzier than it really is. The paintings have a luminous quality in which forms are defined by subtle gradations of color that shimmer and effloresce on the retina. The effect is to create in the viewer the uneasy sensation that he or she is looking at a mirage or a hallucination rather than at a definable object.

This is mysterious and compelling work, skillfully executed and masterfully conceived. The show runs through June 15.

Estraya is at 827-829 W. 36th St. in Hampden. Hours are Thurs.-Sat. noon to 4 p.m. Call 410-889-1226.

Worth checking out

Painter Mark Eisendrath is showing recent paintings, drawings and sculpture in his studio at 3500 Clipper Road. Call 410-889-5234. Also, the artist's co-op gallery 1448 is presenting drawings and paintings on acrylic by Donna Infantino. The gallery is at 1448 E. Baltimore St. Hours are 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or by appointment. Call 410-732-5817.

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