Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Yer Killin’ Me

Published in Art Access, April 2008
pictured: "and God Bless" by Dominic Rouse, courtesy Benham Gallery

The latest show at ArtsWest is “Yer Killin’ Me,” curated by Deborah Paine, curator for Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and former Microsoft curator.
This show features:
• Samantha Scherer in an installation titled “These Are Their Stories”: 50 to 60 beautifully rendered watercolor images of victims from the opening sequences of the TV show “Law & Order.”
• Chris Crites’recreations of criminal mug shots and other images from the 1890s to 1950s in acrylic on paper bags.
• Susan Seubert, a Portland artist whose black and white photographs depict bucolic landscapes where people have been murdered.
• Maggie Orth, Seattle artist, technologist and entrepreneur who creates and invents interactive and electronic textiles and who is considered a pioneer in the emerging field of electronic textiles, interactive fashions, wearable computing and interface design.
• Dominic Rouse, whose bizarre, macabre and surrealistic photographs are all about death and destruction.
• And Randy Nichols, who expressively recreates the portraits of personalities bordering on the edges of iconic.

Scherer’s installation is not extremely large as installations go, the full installation is 26 inches by 65 inches and consists of some 40 to 50 evenly spaced individual watercolor paintings, each of which is a mere 2.5 inches square. The black-and-white images look more like ink wash drawings than watercolors. The wet-on-wet paint soaks into the paper in blobs with delicate control of shadows and minimal modulation of tone. Scherer explains: “Underneath each drawing, the season and episode number pertaining to the victim is handwritten on the wall in pencil, so it ends up being a kind of catalog of victims.”
As viewers of the “Law and Order” series know, each show begins with someone finding a dead body, usually by complete chance. It is these bodies – their faces to be specific – that Scherer paints. Most could easily be interpreted as peacefully sleeping rather than dead, but at least one of the images is of a survivor in a hospital bed with a black eye and oxygen hooked to her nose. This is a painful image. There is also at least one image of a highly recognizable actor, in this case Joe Seneca, one of those character actors that everybody immediately recognizes but can’t remember by name.
Rouse appears in the show courtesy of Benham Gallery. Images seen on his Web site at http://www.dominicrouse.com/ are macabre in the extreme, with rotting corpses, skeleton heads with bodies sliced in sections and sewn back together. A photograph called “and God Bless” pictures a bare room like a monk’s cell minus the religious iconography or a prisoner’s cell with an old dresser of a type one can’t imaging being in a prison cell. There is no body in the cell, but the tops and bottoms of striped pajamas pray beside the bed – the top hung on the wall like a crucifix. Other Rouse photos in the show such as “Vacancy” and “The Survivor” are even darker and more horrific.
Nichols’ paintings are decorative and sweet, and similar to Scherer’s in style, only with more color and less detail. Described as iconic, it seems that description has more to do with the subjects than with the look of the paintings. The subjects include Princess Diana and the recently martyred Benazir Bhutto, both of whose violent deaths play right into the “Yer Killin’ Me” theme.
It is Crites’ mug shots on brown paper bags that are iconic in presentation. Each face is that of a criminal or suspect taken from the San Francisco Police Department, Golden Gate precinct, in the 1940s. The artist does not know their identities. They are identified by crime: “Arsonist,” “Assault,” etc. Harsh, seen from a straight-forward viewpoint and painted in flat planes of few colors, they are reminiscent of some of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits – and due to subject matter also bring to mind Warhol’s electric chair series.
Orth’s interactive and electronic textiles almost defy description. Until interacted with, her abstract patterns are not unlike paintings by Stuart Davis or Marsden Hartley or traditional patchwork quilts, but when touched, the colors and patterns change. These works are technologically inventive, and the patterns are quite attractive, but I do not understand why they were included in a show in which everything else adheres to a death theme.
Seubert’s photographs do not appear to fit with that theme either. They are quiet landscape photographs in black and white, comfortable nature scenes with no hint of humanity – no people, no cars, and no buildings or telephone wires overhead. But each photograph is of a murder scene. Titles and captions complete the photographs by explaining the settings. For instance: “1000 Acres. On 31 August 1992, Clarence Wayne Richards’ body was found in 1000 Acres Park. He died of numerous stab wounds to the neck and chest. His pickup truck was found in SE Portland. On 30 January 1990, the body of Tony Alverez was discovered sitting in his truck with two gunshot wounds to the head. He was a long haul trucker. There is no suspect in the case.”
“When asked if I would be a guest curator for the ArtsWest Playhouse exhibition space,” Paine said, “my first question was to inquire about the play they would be presenting during this exhibition. ‘The Dead Guy’ production turned out to be a wonderful title to play with in terms of finding imagery that would segue from the play to the exhibition space.”
Paine described the works in the show as “an eclectic mix of tongue-in-cheek playfulness and serious imagery” that “deals with death in an obvious and hopefully humorous way.”
“Yer Killin’ Me” runs April 6-May 3 at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Avenue SW, Seattle.

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