Sex & Loneliness 

Two shows at Busta Gallery follow wildly different paths

I like experimenting with how audiences react with each other," says William Busta, whose downtown gallery is offering a case study in exactly that. Through July 30, the Busta Gallery is simultaneously hosting shows by two strikingly different Cleveland artists: one by young yet accomplished painter Aaron Koehn, and another by established anti-establishmentarian poster artist Derek Hess.

One exhibition is an architectural exploration of the tensions between stated intentions and lived life; the other is a graphic memorial to evolving sexuality. If the shows appeal to different audiences, then Busta has done his job.

"Aaron's attracts a lot of younger artists, people involved in ecclesiastical art," he says. "For Derek's, a lot of people show up with tattoos."

Whereas painted perspective was engineered to create the illusion of freedom and openness, Koehn opens spaces simply to close them again. In his Self Storage series, the painter masterfully commands depth to make us feel confined by imposing facades and cramped rooms. If we were to step into these oil landscapes, we would be a few strides away from brick walls or cold steel. A student of architecture, Koehn invokes structures with precision, which intensifies their harshness.

The show's title is meant to be read on two levels. Self Storage refers to the depicted facilities for keeping your stuff dry — garages, warehouses, storage sheds. But it also refers to the boxes we try to shuffle our selves into for easy labeling and storage, and the failure of living activity to enact ideal intentions. The buildings' uninviting harshness betrays the insecurities behind confident and cheerful public statements of purpose, and the gritty circumstances that stain those dreams.

This contrast between the ideal and actual is nowhere as stark as in "Storefront." In it, we see a few inches of brick and two wide, pedestrian-level windows, with blinds tightly closed. A location that exists to display wares and warmly welcome customers has been closed off by standoffish urges to shut out greedy eyes.

In the show's least claustrophobic piece, "Two Lane," Koehn takes us into a bowling alley, bright but sterile, with three lanes stretching toward a black void smattered with flecks of blue. If taken literally, the odd sparks are alien and unnatural. But they can also be taken to be accidents in the painting process, deliberately left in to reassert the flatness of the canvas against the illusion of depth.

Koehn straddles the line between accurate representation and experiments in form. This tendency is especially prevalent in three Post-Impressionistic works from 2009, when the artist's thesis was still crystallizing. "Wash Closet" and "The Gazebo" present us with objects that are recognizable as tables, flowers, and sinks, but at the same time are "mere" brush strokes.

Off Koehn's exhibit in the main gallery is Hess' Playboy Covers. Renowned for his punk-rock album covers and poster art, the artist has been featured, among other places, in the Louvre. The works he offers up here, however, might make even the French blush.

Though certain subjects in classical painting lent themselves to sensuality, for centuries studio artists downplayed the erotic aspect of the nude figure. Hess sharply breaks from this sensibility. "It's a little bit pornography, it's a little bit art," he said in a recent NPR interview. The series showcases covers from the titular magazine between the years 1967-'79, each one drawn over with nude figures in grease pencils guided by Hess' sketchbook style. The feminine subjects are vital and limber, and undeniably explicit in their poses. Hess says the choice of Playboy covers from his childhood was a symbol of the layering of adult experience on childhood memories. This layering renders weirdly quaint the censor-conscious '70s magazines by the more anatomically correct adult fantasies that followed them.

Viewers might ask, Is there a statement beyond titillation and indulgence of memory? One piece gives a clue. "September 1971 II" presents the top half of model Crystal Smith's face rendered in puzzle pieces; in the blank lower half, Hess has drawn in the naked trunk and legs of a kneeling woman. One is immediately reminded of Surrealist Rene Magritte's 1935 "Rape," in which a woman's face is grotesquely replaced by a nude female torso. Magritte intended the piece as a remark on Freudianism, but subsequent feminist critics have used it as a touchstone for discussions of the objectification of women.

Without knowing Hess' mind, one cannot say whether or not "September 1971" is a critique of his own project from the inside; its resemblance to the Magritte painting is striking, but the rest of the works speak of unbridled sexual imagination. In any case, the drawings themselves, from a pure technical perspective, are remarkable for their ability to conjure life from black lines and splashes of simple color.

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