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Review: A new exhibit at Two Wall Gallery isn’t a pretty sight
There’s no shortage of beautiful art on Vashon — our local galleries all seem to be bursting at the seams with vibrant paintings, gleaming sculptures and other lovingly crafted, eye-pleasing objects.
But with so many gorgeous works of art on view year-round on the Island, it’s sometimes easy to forget that art doesn’t necessarily have to be pretty.
Sometimes, it can be downright horrifying, and many artists throughout the ages — from Hieronymus Bosch to Goya to Francis Bacon — have come up with creations that have not comforted their viewers but, instead, provoked, challenged and even enraged them.
And now, there is a rare chance to see some art that gets in your face right here on Vashon, in the very appropriately titled show, “Subversion, Sacrilege and the Occasional Monkey.” The exhibit, featuring the works of Seattle artists John Brucker and Michael O’Driscoll, will hang at Two Wall Gallery through the end of the month.
The show opened in December, when some gallery-goers and nearby shopkeepers questioned whether it was an appropriate Christmas show.
It was an understandable criticism. After all, there are several paintings by O’Driscoll that variously portray Christ as a clown, a drunk and a graffiti artist. In another painting, O’Driscoll replaced the Virgin Mary’s face with a monkey’s head.
Wow. When was the last time you saw paintings like that hanging on a Vashon gallery wall?
I don’t think I ever have. But I’ll admit that O’Driscoll’s paintings took me back to another time in my life, when I worked as a young arts writer in Chicago during the late 1980s and early 90s.
It was a busy, heady time — George H.W. Bush was in the Oval Office and culture wars were raging. Hardly a month went by that didn’t include some kind of blistering art controversy, so I had plenty to write about.
There was an uproar over a photograph by Andres Serrano that showed a crucifix immersed in the photographer’s own urine.
Cincinatti’s Contemporary Art Center was indicted for pandering obscenity after opening an exhibition of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe.
The National Endowment for the Arts was almost taken down in a controversy over its funding of four performance artists whose work was called indecent by angry clergy and congressmen.
And there were two cases of art shown at the Art Institute of Chicago — one involving a flag on the floor and the other depicting Chicago’s beloved late Mayor Harold Washington dressed up in women’s underwear — that wound up in the capable hands of ACLU lawyers.
O’Driscoll’s paintings at Two Wall Gallery remind me of those last two examples — unsubtle, gimmicky works created by students with almost nothing in their artistic bag of tricks except the conceptual equivalent of a baseball bat, good for shattering the most obvious taboos. It’s no wonder that such art can sometimes be interpreted as an attack.
To be fair, I think part of O’Driscoll’s intention is to poke fun at bad art. He paints over hackneyed canvases that he finds on the curb, in the trash and at thrift stores, creating pieces that even he calls “downright silly” in his artist’s statement.
But some Islanders haven’t been amused. The show’s curator Jack Strubbe temporarily removed one of O’Driscoll’s paintings, which was dominated by imagery of a murderous feline, after it upset a worker in the building whose beloved cat had just died.
And according to another person who works in a shop adjacent to the gallery, one viewer was so offended by O’Driscoll’s Virgin-Mary-as-a-monkey piece that he or she took it down from the gallery wall and, with a dash of care and courtesy that could only be expected on Vashon, placed it on the gallery floor, with its canvas side to the wall.
I think that was out of line. The painting didn’t belong to the person who took it down, and he or she shouldn’t have touched it. But even if I approved of such guerrilla acts of art criticism, I still wouldn’t think these particular artworks merited such an extreme reaction. I agree with O’Driscoll — I think his paintings are silly. Brucker’s works are another matter.
His drawings — meticulously rendered in mixed media in a style reminiscent of such great artists as R. Crumb, Ivan Albright and Otto Dix — are savage reveries on the dark underbelly of the American experience. They tell stories people may or may not want to hear.
It’s a shame that Brucker’s works in the show are somewhat diminished by their proximity to those by O’Driscoll. The two artists have little in common.
The best of Brucker’s work at Two Wall, including “The Dog Days of Summer,” “30 Nothing” and “The Magic Kingdom,” are very impressive pieces. But remember, that doesn’t mean they are pretty.
That’s OK — art doesn’t have to be pretty. Maybe here on Vashon we all need to be reminded of that once in a while.
— Elizabeth Shepherd is the arts editor for The Beachcomber.