Animal Planet

Paul Sydorenko and his imaginary friends

Totems Through March 28 William Rupnik Gallery 1667 E. 40th St., Unit 1A 216.533.5575 wrgcleveland.com

Paul Sydorenko and his cat Cha-Cha were born around the same time in the mid 1970s, growing up together in rural Wadsworth. The white feline used up his allotment of lives around the time his human sidekick went on to study marine biology at Ohio University. But in the past few years, he's been granted a new sort of half-life in two dimensions, as a character adding an upbeat element to many of Sydorenko's often pessimistic, scientifically minded paintings.

In the show Totems at William Rupnik Gallery, Cha-Cha is a simply drawn cartoon avatar, exploring the fragments of a poisoned and disintegrating world, planting banners proclaiming spiritual values; one says "Soul"; another is emblazoned with the Japanese character meaning "Tiger."

Sydorenko's allegorical landscapes sample mountains and cities, round clouds and barren trees, summing up the planet. Schematic renderings or clear, caricature-like outlines carry much of the message, drawn on top of drippy, colorful enamel washes that evoke chemical pollution. In "Sick," tall buildings perch on clumps of rock and earth, while revolting pink liquids splooge out as if from pipes; very ill-looking fish, rendered in a sketchy style, float in a larger, looser dimension, appearing to gag. Then there's a weeping, sagging bear, a patch of colorful graffiti-like marks and a number of small, orderly green circles, reminiscent of a circuit board. Other symbolic elements in several paintings, including a compass with directional points and a diagram of DNA, expand Sydorenko's vocabulary, speaking in broad terms of structure, mapping and the power of the human mind to find, or sometimes lose, its way.

It's important that there are no people in these works. They're a human-free zone that, though imprinted with the damage of real-world industrial and technological mayhem, is essentially an imaginary animal planet. Near the door of the gallery, the title of the show is briefly defined. "Totem: noun. a natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and be adopted by it as a spiritual emblem."

Sydorenko follows his totems into spiritual battle. Whether the hero of these non-narrative vignettes is Cha-Cha or an anonymous pink bunny who also makes frequent appearances, the story depends on the survival of childlike delight, triumphing at least in the imagination. On the gallery windowsills, several small troupes of pastel-tinted miniature plastic cats and bunnies made by the artist seem to mill around like student protesters, carrying signs with single words that might combine to mean something or nothing: sleep, doom, bum, bless. Every battle needs its foot soldiers.

Meanwhile the cat, mounted on the back of an owl in a paint-on-panel image across the room, swoops toward the viewer, away from a stand of leafless, ghostly trees, his paws spread wide. In one, he holds a flag that says "soul"; in the other, two flowers, like a gift.

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