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And a Pig Shall Lead Them 

Swine stand in for the viewer in Amy Casey's works.

Spot the porker: Amy Casey's "Spilling Out of the Bar."
  • Spot the porker: Amy Casey's "Spilling Out of the Bar."

Amy Casey doesn't drive. Her view is one seen from trains and buses, through back lots, under bridges, and past weary buildings. She loves signage: flashing bar signs, garish neon, hand-painted and faded advertisements. Moving slower than the speed of car, she picks up all the details and records them in her paintings, using tiny brushstrokes.

Three years after receiving her B.F.A. in painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Casey paints in her apartment near the Cleveland-Lakewood border. Her work is featured this month at Dead Horse Gallery, one of few area galleries willing to take chances on young, daring artists. Amy Casey, New Paintings, her first solo show, encompasses more than a dozen large- and medium-scale canvases, as well as 51 small black-and-white paintings.

Every Casey painting is a travelogue of personal memories, odd vignettes, and city scenes. A road, river, fence, or trail runs through each of her works, resembling a connect-the-dots treasure map. But, as in every journey, there are obstacles as mundane and concrete as Day-Glo construction barrels and bad weather, and as abstract as loneliness. She begins with the memory of old wallpaper, carving patterns into linoleum blocks, then repeatedly pressing them to the canvas to create a richly textured background. This is overlaid with a thin wash that sometimes resembles an ozone-alert sunset.

Onto this dense ground she constructs little scenes. Cartoon characters such as a pig, a bunny, and little canaries are the protagonists, drawn from kitschy objects she has received as gifts. Some figures have their own private rainstorms ruining their day. Roads are dead ends or cul-de-sacs. Cities are heavy, blocky shapes with no details. Houses are meticulously decked out with gingerbread detail, some of the tiniest of which is achieved by using a wallpaper glue syringe, pins, and barely-there brushes.

Most often, the porcine figure, looking more like a piggy bank than a barnyard specimen, is alienated. In a sweet, small painting called "Spilling Out of the Bar," a small red pig peeks around the corner to see bright blue counterparts scattered in the street beneath the sign "Payne Café Liquor." The road is patterned in watery pink; the street details are almost photo-realistic. But the pigs, which all have the same flat shape and seem to float on top of the canvas, are straight out of Disney and pop art. Here, as in much of her work, Casey walks that precarious line between humor and pathos. Her pigs are cute, but they are not really pigs. They are stand-ins for the observer, or sometimes even the artist herself.

Most of the larger works are installed in Dead Horse's main gallery, a cut-up, somewhat claustrophobic space. Two pieces that appeared here in January seem unfinished, revealing the leaps Casey's work has taken this year.

The smaller black-and-white paintings, measuring four inches square, are hung salon-style in the gallery's separate second space. All are scenes of the bunny with the same stunned, wondering look on its face, placed in train stops, bus stations, markets, kitchens, and backyards. They are simultaneously somber and humorous.

Opposite these is one of Casey's finest pieces to date: Chronicling her three years as an art museum guard, "More Hours Than I Care To" features a sky filled with small, meticulously painted objects from ancient Asian art; they seem to hover over a desperate scene. Below are gray, one-room huts linked by heavy power lines, leading to one just beneath an acid rainstorm. The little red pig is nearby, its placid smile belying the bleak scene. The bright blue pieces of art remain just out of reach.

Another engrossing canvas is "Lost Love Ahead," an homage to the recently destroyed Temple of Lost Love, a sort of shrine created by local artists under a Cleveland bridge. Casey captures in detail the mass of graffiti on the wall and places it onto a sludgy mountainside topped with smokestacks. The red pig is there, facing the temple, arms out to catch -- or throw --a flying red cat. But it's the sky that is amazing: a roiling mass of puce green and acid yellow that portends some kind of doom.

For Casey, the ethereal details of a city in flux and memories that settle like spiders in the corner of the mind are presented by painting styles that war with each other. The combination of lush, fluid patterns and highly detailed illustrations seems irreconcilable. But Casey is unafraid of ugliness. If a painting seems too beautiful, look closely and you'll find a gauche, garish little section daring you to hate it, like a teenager.

Casey is extremely brave in her use of kitschy objects, birds, and bunnies. She plays with depth perception and viewers' expectations of what a painting can do. Her work reflects a consistent, singular view; follow her down these paths of fear and wonder, and find yourself there.

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