Thursday, November 1, 2007

Must-see show

The Helm Gallery shows excellent work by Chauney Peck and Whiting Tennis

published in the Weekly Volcano, Nov. 1, 2007

I’ve been following the evolution of Chauney Peck since the late ’90s when she showed up in a group show at the old Commencement Art Gallery.

Back then she was doing paintings that were expressive, spatially open and gestural. Then she evolved into a sculptor of large, painted wood constructions tha
t looked something like giant kids’ jigsaw puzzles — a typical example being the big, cartoonlike boat she displayed at Ice Box Gallery last year. That boat and similar constructions presented an interesting twist on tradition: Paintings in the Renaissance tradition used perspective to create an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface; in her painted constructions, Peck created an illusion of flat space in three-dimensional objects.

Her vinyl paintings on paper at The Helm bring together many of the visual concerns dealt with in her earlier works. She paints clumps or piles of urban debris — cast-off clothing, toys, furniture, the accumulated crap of a wasteful consumer society. Everything is piled together into a single shape surrounded by white space. Her compositions are highly structured and architectural in the way of Cezanne when he broke the forms of nature down to their essential geometric shapes. Her painting style — with flat, unmodulated colors and flowing lines — reminds me a lot of Jacob Lawrence.

As a typical example, “Cerrado” pictures a pile of furniture with blue cloths (perhaps referring to the blue tarps that were so prominent in New Orleans after Katrina), a lightbulb reminiscent of Picasso’s eye-bulb in “Guernica,” a red bucket and overturned patio furniture. The whole structure is a single form that has a dramatic thrust from a clutter of objects lower right to the lightbulb upper left. The colors are bright and flat, and the whole assemblage of objects is held together by careful placement and by the zippy white lines that tie the parts together.

Showing with Peck is Whiting Tennis, whose paintings and sculptures deal with many of the same subjects and are similar in style. The two are so similar in both style and outlook that it would be easy to assume that everything in the gallery was created by the same artist. They are a perfect match.

In fact, I thought Tennis’ “Blue Hamburger” was by Peck until I read the inventory sheet. “Blue Hamburger” is a painting in acrylic and collage on canvas of a Third World tent city, a cluttered amalgamation of thrown-together shacks and tents constructed of discarded materials. As in Peck’s paintings, all of the objects are clumped together to form a single organic shape on a white background. The differences are to be found in Tennis’ use of simulated wood-grain texture and his limited palate. Peck’s primary colors give way to mostly whites and grays in Tennis. But both employ the ubiquitous blue tarps. Tennis’ work is also grittier. Life seems harsher in his world. Whereas Peck also depicts poverty amidst plenty, she presents it in a playful, Hello Kitty style.

The most powerful works by Tennis are two rather large sculptures: “The New Green” (wood, paint and Visqueen) and “Boogeyman” (plywood and hot metal tar). “The New Green” is an enigmatic structure that looks something like a strangely shaped doghouse painted a sick, milky green. It is a self-contained structure that is compelling because of its mystery. What could its function possibly be? “Boogeyman” is identical in shape but completely covered in shiny black tar to give it the menacing look of some kind of military apparatus or a mechanized Darth Vader mask.

This is truly an excellent show. It closes Wednesday, Nov. 7, so I urge you to see it right away.

[The Helm, Chauney Peck and Whiting Tennis, Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through Nov. 7, 760 Broadway, Tacoma, 253.627.8845,

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