Perhaps our culture hasn't just gone crazy. Maybe ideas need to swing back and forth like political regimes, or the length of skirts. Evolution/Creation, for example, seems to go in forty-year increments. Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical accepting evolution in 1880. The Butler Act and Scopes "Monkey" Trial happened in 1925, banning evolution from Tennessee schools. Epperson vs. Arkansas, reversing that decision, came in 1968. It's forty years later now, so we're about due for another swing.
Thing is, ideas are not just a tug of war between liberal and conservative sides. Ideas swing for both. The [Print] Run show at 21 Grand that opened at last Friday's Art Murmur might display another way -- a liberal way, an agnostic way -- for Darwinism to swing back. When we accept evolution, our relationship with animals and the natural world is complex: we identify ourselves with them and anthropomorphize them. We get things like Born Free and Jonathan Livingston Seagull: animals as a screen through which we discover our humanity and spirituality. When we -- as a culture -- contest evolution, our relationship with animals simplifies again and animals become objects and symbols.
This might be a stretch. Let me try again:
[Print] Run is a small show: 2 artists, 3 walls, 5 paintings, 2 installations of small prints and blocks, plus a few loose posters. So it's hard not to notice the common visual elements: bright colors and animals treated with a graphic, a pictorial, sensibility.
Print and bookmaker Patricia Wakida's lino prints are graphics: postcards, calendar pages, event posters. You don't have to know Wakida [full disclosure: I do; we are friends and both consult with Kaya Press] to see this exhibition as a confessional display of her practice, an organic, pluralist practice wandering through design, illustration, printmaking, letterpress printing, experimental bookmaking, and writing. Her Asian zodiac calendar and postcard series have left her with, so far, a decade's worth of animal archetypes to display. Other projects examining local food growers or one-offs have domestic animals and trout curving across landscapes as lines, figures, and representatives of various sustainable values. Long an advocate for Californian cultures and Asian American history, Wakida has developed an aesthetic that combines 19th century japonisme and groovy environmentalism with socialist realism and deliberate DIY roughness.
Jason Byers's paintings, on the other hoof, are paintings. In each, a field of bright, solid color encroaches on a blurred, dark scene -- landscape? figures? On each of these fields of candy color an illustration of a healthy, noble wild animal (stag, elephant, giraffe) is outlined and colored in. Each painting is underlined, literally, by a tonal scale, i.e. a strip of squares of color in progressive order. The deliberately pictorial quality of the animals insists on irony and distance. It's hard not to view this series as a blotting out of complexity and naturalism by a children's picture book sensibility, although to get there, you'd have to employ the very simplistic/symbolic thinking the paintings seem to critique.
Two artists in one small 21 Grand show is a pretty weak argument, but elsewhere at Art Murmur this year, things I've been seeing lately have been coming together. Buzz Gallery is showing a series of prints by Case Conover made from collected rubber stamps. These surprisingly lovely and complex (not to mention, colorful) pieces are made mostly from a stamp of a tree, the globe, a leaf, and a ladybug: symbols of environmentalism and nature rendered into convenient modules for replication. The tree is both figure and symbol here; what it is not is a rendering of a tree. At Johansson Projects Marina Vendrell Renaut creates creature sculptures from "reclaimed" furs and candy-colored patterned sweaters that you can play with: pull their tails to hear music or use the radio controller to drive them around the gallery. Again, the intention here is both meta/critical and syncretic, both to study the subordination of false naturalism to falser allegory, and to cram as many sensibilities under one roof as possible. And to use children's toys to do it.
Heck, check out the Nick Cave show at YBCA. His earlier work is about turning the human body into an alien or an animal with fake fur costumes. But more recent work includes creating free-standing, stuffed sculptures of polar bears and armadillos, out of candy-colored patterned sweaters.
What is this? A conspiracy? I'm not making grand claims here, just noticing a pattern. "Nature" is ironically reduced. Animals are reordered into symbols and removed from anthropomorphism -- alienated, in fact. These symbols are modularized for critical, and joyful, replication. Children's design and play are parodied; bright, solid colors employed. Unfashionable, modernist naturalism is demonstratively blotted out. I'm only half joking, and only half serious, about the evolution/creation thing, but regardless, this is a large step away from the cartoon-influenced drawing and painting of the last decade or so. Is something happening here or am I imagining things?