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November 18, 2001
Art Review

By Victoria Dalkey, Bee Art Correspondent, The Sacramento Bee

"Exploded Iron: The Sitting Basket" by Frank Day is part of the "Sacramento in the 70s" exhibit.

Where art we? Two exhibits show local scene's breadth

A pair of strong shows at local galleries offers a chance to ponder the state of Sacramento art as it was in the 1970s and as it is now.

Curated by Charles Johnson, who was an art critic at The Bee in the '70s, "Sacramento in the '70s" at the b. sakata garo gallery looks at works by some of the artists who made that period memorable.

The Solomon Dubnick Gallery's 10th anniversary show, "Looking Beyond," presents an overview of much of what is being done by Sacramento artists now.

Neither show is comprehensive. Johnson describes his selection of works from the 1970s as a very subjective look at the artists he remembers most vividly from his days as a reviewer. Solomon Dubnick's show focuses only on artists represented by the gallery, but as it is one of the largest showcases for contemporary art in the Sacramento area, it offers a fairly broad sampling of current works.

With only 20 artists included, "Sacramento in the '70s" is refreshingly spare in its installation, while the Solomon Dubnick display of more than 100 works by 55 artists is bursting at the seams. The former is like dropping into an exclusive boutique, the latter like browsing at Macy's.

Perhaps hindsight is always more focused and satisfying than the clash and clamor of things that have not yet been sorted out. While the '70s have been described as a period of pluralism in art, it is the Solomon Dubnick show where pluralism reigns.

With the benefit of distance, Johnson has left out a number of things that were being done in Sacramento in the '70s, narrowing his focus to the works he finds most enduring and essential to the time. He cites several factors for the vitality of the decade's art in Sacramento.

One was a booming economy that led to increases in the price for art, first on the East Coast and then throughout the country. The national excitement about art trickled down to Sacramento, giving the city's artists a sense of possibilities that have been curtailed in more recent years.

In addition, Chicago artists Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson came to teach at California State University, Sacramento, bringing an infusion of the tough and edgy sensibility of the Chicago Imagists, who satirized pop culture in dark psychological terms. They also introduced an appreciation for self-taught artists, such as Joseph Yoakum and Martin Ramirez, whose obsessive, personal visions intrigued local artists. These influences gave a harder edge to the crude, raw, mostly lighthearted humor of the already flourishing Funk Art scene.

The locally famous Candy Store Gallery, directed by Adeliza McHugh, was in full swing, providing a focus for much of the most daring and freewheeling art of the '70s in Sacramento.

Many of the artists in "Sacramento in the '70s" were associated with the Candy Store, though a few also showed at the Artists Contemporary Gallery, its chief competitor, where a more inclusive spirit prevailed. Though the Candy Store connection runs through the show, the Chicago connection seems more forceful.

Nutt and Nilsson, closet moralists, delved into the darker recesses of the human psyche and brought a sinister and menacing edge to their superficially comic takes on contemporary society. They also brought an almost fetishistic sense of craftsmanship to their works that was at odds with the Funk spirit and gave an unsettling, obsessive quality to their works.

It is their spirit that infuses much of the best work in the sakata gallery show. Nutt's untitled mixed-media work, a drawing of an unlovely temptress set inside a decorative mat, reeks with the spirit of human unkindness. Drawing from cartoon conventions, Nutt has outlined the woman's figure with marks that denote action, pain, movement and bad odors. It's both humorous and horrifying, conveying a sense of revulsion at mass culture, as does Nilsson's fractured watercolor of lumbering figures carrying homunculi in their pockets.

Don Reich, who was one of the strongest and most unsung artists of the period, goes on a trip into the unconscious with his masterful colored pencil and watercolor titled "Ego Autopsy." In it, a sea of strange images -- Mona Lisa's face under a green feather, a surreal swimmer with flippers and a water tap atop his body, a fanciful creature with eyes made out of green olives -- float in a sensual soup of emotive color. Reich's images of food, the human body and internal organs turned into whimsical yet menacing creatures is a potent melange of disturbing forces.

Disturbing, too, is Tom Brozovich's untitled painting of classical columns surrounding a car that turns into a female figure with a grille of tubelike bars across her pubic area. It's strange and compelling, as is Frank Day's narrative painting "Exploded Iron: The Sitting Basket," which depicts calamitous forces exploding around the body of a dead American Indian in a setting rife with symbolic forces.

The spirit of native art imbues Mary Warner's primitivist watercolor of a killer cat behind a white picket fence, and Roy DeForest's mixed-media drawing of a steamboat. In Warner's sly image, the body of the cat seems to have been cut up and reassembled into a humorously grotesque creature with a swollen pouch . The sense of menace and disjuncture is enhanced by tiny obsessive markings that delineate the animal's fur and the grass behind the creature. Both comic and cutting, DeForest's image, with its rudimentary symmetry and expressionistic markings, seems pulled from deep within the psyche.

The political unrest of the '60s and '70s informs a couple of works. Irving Marcus' nervous graphite drawing, "Jimmy Meets Jimmy," catches the faces in a crowd at what could either be a parade or a protest march. Peter Saul's radical and wrenching portrait, "Shicago Justus," conveys the turmoil of the Chicago Seven Trial. In it, Bobby Seale is reduced to a melting, body-less creature, his grimacing head shot up with hypodermic syringes, his orange flesh screaming against an acid-green background.

The one work in the show that seems at odds with the rest is an imposing canvas by Jack Ogden. Against a background of lushly colored squares, the figure of the painter Cezanne with his easel on his back trods on, leaning on his walking stick, a lone artist hero, painted with panache. It's an homage to the spirit of the solitary, singular artist-hero.

Diverse Dubnick show

Ogden and Marcus are among the strongest artists represented in Solomon Dubnick's anniversary show, which is so huge it's difficult to characterize. Ogden continues his focus on the artist as subject with a blunt, painterly still life in primary colors of paint cans and brushes in his studio. Marcus gives the viewer an antic image of a crazed woman surrounded by horses, painted in startling tones of green, red and blue.

Solomon Dubnick is a diverse showcase for both prominent and promising local artists. Many of the artists in this show -- among them Ken Waterstreet, Gary Pruner, Robert Else, Jorjana Holden, Helen and Alan Post -- were stalwarts of the local art scene in the '70s and have continued to produce strong work. The gallery's 10th anniversary show, which is eclectic and vigorous if not very focused, is enhanced by their presence.

But the gallery has also brought along younger artists who have made an impact on the local scene in the 1990s and 2000s. In "Virtual News," Jeff Myers offers an intense, painterly scene of a woman brooding over a landscape filled with tiny figures that call up associations with rescue workers at Ground Zero. In "Trace," Cynthia Hurley presents a painting in five panels of dry, monochromatic vegetation broken in the central panels by faint animal tracks and in the two outer ones with tiny figures climbing up out of what might be the rubble of the Twin Towers.

John Tarahteeff gives us a pair of evocative paintings that are among the strongest works in the show. "The Waiting Place" is a Balthus-like scene with still, somnolent figures placed in a landscape bathed in the dusky light of memory and age. "The Baby Sitter" is an unsettling image of a huge nude with a single monumental breast dominating the center of a composition in which a dispirited young boy floats a toy boat in a pond. It's as edgy and disturbing as some of the pieces in "Sacramento in the '70s" and affirms that a spirit of searching and risk-taking still imbues some Sacramento art.