Heidi McDowell, Thomas Haag, and Martin Webb are all Bay Area artists, but their current shows, which opened July 23 in San Francisco and Oakland, respectively, stray far from the local and the familiar. All three artists tackle the sometimes surreal experience of journeys, whether in the blur of a landscape seen through a car window or the jumble of images encountered over the course of a dream.
McDowell's paintings are on display in the main gallery of ArtZone 461 in the Mission District of San Francisco. The show is called Road Trip and offers a new perspective on this seemingly banal activity. At first glance, her work looks less like paintings and more like a collection of snapshots of the world as seen from a car speeding down a highway. McDowell herself is no stranger to travel -- she was born in Texas but now lives in San Francisco, and her art speaks to many hours spent traversing the country by car. Unlike most commuters or truckers, though, McDowell has studied and distilled the experience and made of it something more than a stream of silos, orchards, refineries, and mountain ranges. These passing impressions, which most of us forget as soon as we get where we're going, become an evocative illustration of what it means to cover vast spaces without crossing the invisible barrier of the car window.
McDowell's version of the journey is definitively American-style. Haag and Webb, on the other hand, delve into the universal imagery of journeying through dreams and the subconscious. Their joint exhibition at the Compound Gallery in Oakland, Making the Road by Walking, explores a more symbolic form of travel. The two artist's mediums differ greatly -- Webb works with cement compounds, Haag layers paint with pages from discarded books -- but a shared sense of the oneiric and a fondness for animal imagery unite their work.
The two artists each created the same number of pieces, using the same guidelines for size, and upon first entering the gallery, one can hardly tell that the mosaic of small squares arranged on the wall stems from two different minds. But closer examination reveals that the squares alternate between Webb's opaque and dusky grey tones and Haag's bright, yellow-hued collages. Webb invites the viewer into a mysterious world where coyotes and armadillos wander past silhouetted figures in darkness. Haag allows one to peer through layers of yellowed pages into a dreamy but cheeky clutter of old newspaper clippings, cartoons, and sheet music, all traced over with the outlines of animal-people with three eyes and feathers stuck in their hair.
These two shows prove that traveling can mean many things, from McDowell's serene glance out a car window to Haag and Webb's playful jaunt through ancient and modern imagery. Each is enjoyable in its own right; seen together, they highlight the delicate balance between the strangeness of each individual voyage and the familiarity of imagery that resonates deeply with anyone who has ever gone on a journey, in a car or in the mind.
Road Trip runs through August 21, 2011 at ArtZone 461 in San Francisco. For more information visit artzone461.com. Making the Road by Walking runs through August 21, 2011 at The Compound Gallery in Oakland. For more information visit thecompoundgallery.com.