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Friday, January 9, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

Humor, social commentary leave lasting impression

Special to The Seattle Times

Exhibit review


"The Sixth Annual Altoids Curiously Strong Collection," 1-6 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, through Jan. 25, Consolidated Works, 500 Boren Ave. N., Seattle, $5 suggested donation (206-381-3218 or www.conworks.org).
Consolidated Works is hosting another annual survey of paintings, prints, photographs, drawings and sculptures by young contemporary artists. "The Sixth Annual Altoids Curiously Strong Collection" will eventually be donated to New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, a generous gesture by Altoids' parent company, the Anglo-French candy maker Callard & Bowser-Suchard.

Selected by 10 curators from across the country, the 23 artists from New York, California, Florida and Pennsylvania use humor, irony, satire and multiracial sensibilities to create a refreshing cross-section of American art today. While the scale is often small, the impact and pleasure of the works on view are great.

The plurality of styles includes abstraction, realism, pop art and kitsch. References to the 1960s and 1970s abound, apparently nostalgic lodestones for young artists now in their 20s and 30s. For instance, there's a huge vinyl floor mat of Yoko Ono by an artist (or group of artists?), Assume Vivid Astro Focus, who gave her a hairdo that could have come straight off a Beatles album cover.

That's matched by a color photo that includes another '60s icon — abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning — by Joe Fig. The Brooklyn artist has meticulously constructed a small replica of de Kooning's Long Island studio, built a stick puppet figure of the artist at his easel, and even created facsimile paintings of the artist's controversial last works, done under the influence of Alzheimer's disease.

Another interior-view photo that's clever is "Joe's Junkyard" (no date) by Lisa Kereszi. She simply shot the crowded office of a junkyard owner with a glowing television at its center. Naomi Fisher's "Furry Plant" (2000) is funny, too. It's a nighttime scene of a furry tropical plant with the hairy backside of a young man posing nearby.

The sculptures are not as exciting as those in last year's Altoids collection, but some have their own virtues. "Street Lamp II" (2001) by Rob De Mar perches a mini-roadside environment atop a tall pole. Its small size is startling next to Conrad Bakker's "Exercise Bike" (2003), a lifesize, crudely carved and painted replica of that bane of New Year's resolutions, the stationary exercycle. Much more enigmatic are the rhinestone-encrusted switchblade by asianpunkboy and an abstract wall-leaning sculpture of white wood and plastic by Paul Swenbeck.

Iona Rozeal Brown fashions a painting of an African-American geisha, "A3 Blackface #49" (2003), that alludes to the phenomenon of racial blending. Tony Gray is more pointed about race in his untitled photo collage that juxtaposes appropriated multiracial pornography scenes with wild moiré patterns and silhouettes of African-American men.

By comparison, the paintings seem tame in subject matter but impeccable in their colorful and, in some cases, unexpected imagery. "Shadows" (2001) by Mala Iqbal uses street-art and graffiti techniques like spray paint and tagging in her large landscape of row houses, tree trunks and confining fences.

Wangechi Mutu's collage painting is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, a vaguely gendered figure with elaborate makeup and feather headdress. Elsewhere, adolescent fantasies may underlie another painting, Hernan Bas' "Listening Party" (2003). It joins the leisure-time scene of a happy hippy family by Nick Lowe of Los Angeles.

Tender or harsh? Sentimental or ironic? It's hard to tell with this year's Altoids collection. Since sincerity is something impossible to determine in a work of art, viewers are left to their own devices, reading in their own reactions to this grouping of hot younger artists. That's all part of the fun.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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