There's no escape. In Plato's cave or Plato's closet, contemporary minds don the hand-me-downs of their global culture one leg at a time. You are what you see and what you hear every day, everywhere, stitched across your butt and montaged over the doors of perception. "Pop" artists in the late 1950s were among the first to just say "yes" to all-pervasive commercial and political propaganda. But when was there ever really any way to say "no"?
At most, there's a thin line between high and not-so-high (and, yes, probably really high) art, as curator Ð and Case Western Reserve University art history doctoral candidate Ð Brittany Hudak demonstrates in Fine Line, an exciting, geekily hip exhibit of works by five young graphic designers.
Now on display at Front Room Gallery, the show splashes down amid the undulating seas of contemporary graphic styles, floating from photo-realist renderings to teenager-like, outsider art-ish cartoon panels. Included is Toledo-based artist "UPSO" (his tag), a.k.a. Dustin Amery Hostetler, who recently came up with a winning shoe design for Converse to benefit U2 rock star Bono's aid project, RED. The red-soled black high top features, emblazoned on its heel, a hand clutching a thunderbolt ("that's supposed to portray empowerment," explained the young artist in a Toledo Blade interview). Way cool, no doubt, and also helpful: A percentage of sales goes to the U.N.'s Global Fund to fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa.
Hostetler, who has shown his work in a number of solo shows in New York and around the country, also founded and contributes to Faesthetic, a high-end book-length compendium of "art and oddities" published three times a year.
The five digital prints Hostetler shows in Fine Line are like nothing you've ever seen; then again, they're like everything you've ever seen, which is pretty much the point. These digital renderings of art supplies are beautifully executed "portraits" of brand-name products manufactured by the likes of Crayola and Liquitex. But they also imply a sly, rudimentary narrative, as when a batch of crayons jostle like Marlboros in drag, vamping above a yellow cigarette lighter decorated with a human skull, or when Hostetler juxtaposes a campaign-style lapel button showing a figure blowing his brains out, a tube of acrylic paint and a couple of other real-life art-studio staples. Next to each print (the final picture in the series is an accumulation of all the items from the other four), the artist has suspended a (real) pencil, with which he signed the work. These are editions of one, almost just like an actual handmade object.
Brooklyn, New York artist Joey Parlett fills one Front Room wall with pages of drawn and collaged ideas and fantasies, as if ripped out of a daily journal. One 9-by-11-inch work using graph paper and a ball-point pen is divided into 88 little pictures. Subjects range from random patterns and phrases, like "Goodbye Ghost," to a man riding an oversized songbird and a cat with pink suspenders sporting what might be a toupee. Another notebook-sized drawing appears to show a tiger guarding a section of hell. The overall impression is of a sort of self-portrait, composed from facets of reverie.
Another New York-based designer whose illustrations have appeared in New York Magazine and The New York Times, Damien Correll is probably the most widely recognized artist in Fine Line. Here, his 20-by-16-inch gouache and screen print works are divided into sections containing mysterious, yet banal images, illustrations for a psychological test: A pair of scissors is "cut" by an underlying diagonal, a box opens, harmonizing with the lines of light and shade in the space behind it; a match head touches a filter tip from above, surrounded by smoky squiggles. Correll's low-budget M.C. Escher eye-twisters are like a puzzle on a kid's placemat, found in a booth in a diner on a highway from a long time ago. The pale designs have a spare, faded beauty, evoking forgotten boundaries and never-to-be-solved problems. Similarly, Ryan Santos's digital prints have a mid-20th century graphic flavor. Titled "Cosmic Day Jobs," the five images are symbolic, rebus-like layerings of two or more elements, adding up to a make-believe symbolic order -- Monopoly played on a Ouija board. "The Telepathist," for example, consists of two rectangles crossed at a 90 degree angle, like the wings of a Stealth Bomber. Three eyes, two smiles and a big pink halo complete this calling card for a secret agent of empathy.
Cincinnati-based designer Julie Hill portrays young women and romantic subjects in sweeping pen-and-ink studies influenced by modern Japanese cartoon art. Here, her drawings of half-turned heads and windblown hair are counterpoint to the ADD musings of Correll or the hyper-detachment of Hostetler. Like Partlett (though in a very different key), Hill's drawings search for landmarks as they sketch an emotional topography of Flatland.Ê
OVER THE PAST DECADE Cleveland-based painter Paul Sydorenko has developed a highly recognizable, engaging style, foregrounding a variable cast of child like, firmly outlined characters against the layers of an oozing, melting abstract visual vocabulary. He describes his latest show Ð Plant, Animal, Mineral at Wooltex Gallery Ð as an exhibit of abstract landscapes, and certainly these mid-size works in mixed-paint media on panel take place in the midst of a very painterly space, though not necessarily outdoors.
Despite a distant row of mint green, fairly tall, city-type buildings poking above a makeshift horizon, even "Barrow" -- showing Sydorenko's childhood pet white cat (a stand-in for the artist himself) pushing a wheelbarrow across layers of spray paint and dripping psychedelic lavender -- could be a landscape, only if the landscaper was on some very fancy painkillers. Like the other eight recently completed works at Wooltex, "Barrow" is a visual game where order plays against chaos, in this case using the cat, his barrow, a big tree stump and a patch of colored crystals as moveable pieces. If it's hard to assign any specific meaning to such disconnected musings (a trait Sydorenko's imagery shares with much current art, of course, and with Fine Line participants), that's probably the point: Experience and identity, action and interpretation are like temporary tattoos, slowly fading on the skin of time and space.
Several of Sydorenko's recently completed paintings at Wooltex have a post-psychedelic, pharmaceutical edge. "C20H25N30" shows a pissed-off octopus with crumpled tentacles against a slushy background of hotly pastel colors. A log settles lengthwise nearby, tossed in as if from a coloring book. A handful of blue flowers bloom on the right, while elsewhere a schematic chemical diagram of the title substance Ð which is LSD Ð serves as a decorative pattern. Just as chemical, but less retro, is "Polacrilex-Nicotine Rabbit," in which a stoned-looking pink bunny with oversized, wavy ears clutches a big cigarette in one paw and a carrot in the other. Sydorenko explains he was trying to quit smoking with the aid of Nicorette lozenges, among other things: "My mom says it helps to eat carrots."
But not everything here is about better living through chemistry. In "Disguised as a Tree," a little blue face peeks out from a hole in a tree trunk, like a child cinched into a snowsuit. All eight of Sydorenko's larger works in Plant, Animal, Mineral contain flowers or bare trees that could almost be ganglia or circulatory, anatomical features. Most contain crystals, as a nod to new-age science-fantasy, and all have a curious grid of round circles. These, the artist explains, are included to establish structure and provide some order against the free-form, poured and spray-paint ground. Throughout these lush works, Sydorenko contrasts the sensuous pleasures and disorder of the physical world with a sense of its underlying structure and intimations of impending peril on the other. The tree that conceals the child is a mere husk; the logs and crystals are dislocated fragments of a world that is complex but also incomplete, deprived of the innocence it remembers.Ê
Fine Line Front Room Gallery Through October 24 3615 Superior Ave., Ste. 4203A 216.534.6059 frontroomcleveland.comÊ Plant, Animal, Mineral Wooltex Gallery Through October 24 1900 Superior Ave. 216.241.4069 thewooltexgallery.com