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Two's Company 

Wildly different artists find common ground

Two-artist shows are often collaborations or studies in contrast. But in the case of Two Man Show, the new exhibition at Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery, curator Ross Lesko chooses to emphasize the key traits shared by the radically different featured artists: quirkiness and wry humor.

Of course, each creator has his own goals and aesthetic. Casey Callender offers a series of striking photographs featuring strange and unforgettable protagonists. Local legend Marco Vaccher, meanwhile, uses sculpture to meditate on mortality by way of technology, and its failed promise to give us command over nature and our destinies. Both artists arrive at success despite their wildly divergent paths.

Callender is a lifelong Texan and a professor of digital gaming and simulation at a junior college there. Despite the geographic inconvenience, this is his second exhibition at Lesko, following last year's Cinema 01 photography show.

Callender may be best known as a freelance illustrator, interpreting the modern myths of Marvel Comics, Star Wars, and Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner franchises. His photography, shot mostly during his graduate studies from 2005-2008, allows him to take part in some mythmaking of his own.

One piece, "The Matador," presents a sepia landscape dominated by a man swathed in robes, sporting a satanic horned mask, and looming ominously over a herd of cattle. "Queen's Portrait" (pictured, right) showcases a monarch in green face paint, red leather collar, and golden crown. Stand before such pictures, and you might feel as if you've walked into an unlabeled museum display of homages to strange gods.

Other works by Callender exude a zanier, lighthearted feel. In "Wisenheimer Sets Out," a rascal in a grotesquely smiling silver mask rides a motorcycle with a rooster in the sidecar. In "Snake Eyes," the same character returns to shoot a crappy hand of craps amid a circle of gorillas. Even without knowing the stories behind the characters, the weight of each moment's narrative significance is clear.

"Many of these characters had been floating around my imagination for quite a while — some as far back as childhood," says Callender. He describes shooting his old fantasies as "a very interesting process, sort of like meeting old friends again, and yet in some ways, for the very first time."

His pictures are displayed on archival prints, each measuring about 20x20 inches. Some of them never challenge their status as mechanically transcribed reality. "Queen's Portrait," for one, is a traditional shot of an untraditional figure; the queen's stern, determined gaze aims straight at the viewer.

Yet others resemble oil paintings more than photography. In the foreground of "Popgun Kabuki," a crazed gunfighter's fingers display the fine wrinkles we expect of photographed hands, and the gold finish on his toy weapons flashes like actual gunmetal. But toward the rear of the picture's space, the desperado's theatrically painted face and conical hat exude an almost two-dimensional smoothness. On a thematic level, the combination of photorealistic and enhanced effects meshes well with the combination of two stylized visual tropes: kitschy toys and expressionistic drama.

Based in Seven Hills, Marco Vaccher remains an active painter and sculptor at 88 years of age. He also continues to create, exhibit, and accumulate regional awards, of which he has won hundreds. Here, Vaccher features sculptures built from spoons, egg beaters, jewelry, springs, wire, and heavier mechanical parts. Put together, they make vehicles, robotic portraits, and fantastic contraptions decayed by time and neglect. Layers of copper paint are used to illustrate rust and grime.

"Demise of the Great Mind Works" presents a vaguely human face covering a clumsy engine of gear-wheels, tangled in a convoluted pile of rigging, pumps, and cables of fine wire. The cables hang slack and glisten with a gluey film, suggesting dampness or freely dripping oil. "Demise of the Quad-Powered Unicycle Trainer" (pictured, left) shows a dilapidated, top-heavy contraption on training wheels, one that we have trouble imagining running even in its prime.

In a post-industrial town, Vaccher's pieces exude a special poignancy: Like the factory stacks and folding bridges built in Cleveland's industrial heyday, they were once the instruments of technical genius imbued with hope and purpose. Now they sit and rust.

But it isn't so bleak as all that. Time and entropy make follies of all our ambitions. Yet Vaccher is in on the jokes, and he retells them to us not out of malice or frustration, but out of smiling acceptance.

Callender's pieces line the gallery's lefthand walls, while Vaccher's mostly sit on pedestals near the center of the room. The spatial segregation is warranted: The impact of Callender's work is immediate, almost operatic in its drama. Vaccher's sculptures demand careful attention before letting you in on their great joke. Best to take turns with each artist and not vacillate between the two, letting each work at his own pace.

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