STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY
Three Powerhouse Solo Exhibits at Fresno Art Museum
January 27- June 10, 2018
Photos by Randy Vaughn-Dotta for FAM and by the writer
During the postmodernist era, art came under criticism for its support of the political and economic status quo—including capitalism and colonialism. It is certainly a valid argument: art has served historically to dignify and legitimize power (and undoubtedly always will); but the theory went too far, as theories always do, conflating the modernist cultural rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries (in a broad-brush polemical sweep) with the academic artists who crafted beautiful but mediocre art in tune with bourgeois tastes. The great American realist Winslow Homer, for example, once declared that he would not cross the street to look at a Bouguereau painting, slickly painted and sentimentally contrived.
Today, now that the cultural ideas of postmodernism have gained ascendancy, for better or worse, and we are deluged by the contradictions of a political regime without any mooring in ideology, or even reality, i.e., open-ended and up for subjective interpretations, it’s time to stop seeing art reflexively as complicit with the establishment; to beware of the distorting lenses of political correctness and aesthetic fashion. Respect for the artistic impulse is the basis of three solo shows at the Fresno Art Museum—by David Tomb, Marcus Dorado and Holly Lane — that explore contemporary issues without falling into the trap of choosing content over style, or vice versa. The best art combines the two polarities into memorable objects that serve the eye, head and—be seated, sophisticates—soul.
DAVID TOMB: Rockfowl and Other Wonders
The abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman once derided theoretically-minded artists (despite his own predilection for dogmatism) in a famous aphorism: “Aesthetics is for painting as Ornithology is for the birds.” It’s the biological-imperative theory of culture: artists just do mating calls and dances; no need to overthink our programming! The Bay area painter David Tomb, who has combined his birder interest with his painter’s skills and an environmentalist’s concern in preserving habitat, is surely familiar with Newman’s joke, but he doesn’t underthink it. Tomb’s paintings balance the aesthetic and the ornithological; the striking beauty carries an urgent underlying agenda. Tomb: "Making artwork of birds is a way to connect and personalize my experience of seeing birds. The ultimate goal is to have people think: That animal is incredible... we need to save them!" Tomb’s three mixed-media/collage installations in “Rockfowl and Other Wonders,” accompanied by medium-sized paintings as well as sketches of “bird skins,” feathered-mummy museum-collection specimens, make a forceful case for our avian kin, the metaphorical canaries in the planet’s coal mine. The show’s curator, Michelle Ellis Pracy, who has known Tomb for thirty years, writes:Tomb’s immense compositions are constructed so that we are placed in various habitats where rare and endangered birds reside. For instance, we are up in the canopy of trees with the Philippine Eagle; and in Rock and Rockfowl, we stand in knee-high jungle foliage with a deep forest stretching before us with the Picathertes perched on a vine before our very eyes.
Rock and Rockfowl (2013-16): The African picathertes (pica for magpie; thertes for vulture) or yellow-headed rockfowl, with its distinctive ‘naked’ unfeathered head and black and white plumage, is a striking bird, “something like a cross between a road runner and a crow,” in Tomb’s description. As viewers confront the huge watercolor and mixed-media collage painting, eleven feet high by twenty-seven feet wide, they may feel as overwhelmed as the artist did while seeking a glimpse of the elusive birds in Ghana; fortunately one rockfowl popped up right in front of the artist, so we are spared his hours of humid rainforest vigil.
Great Philippine Eagle (2012): The national bird of the Philippines, Pithecophaga jefferyi, is also known as the monkey-eating eagle (pithecus, money; phagus, eater), although it also eats snakes, civets, hornbills (two of which are shown in the painting) and even monitor lizards and flying lemurs. Now endangered by deforestation, it is, with its 3-foot length and 6- to 7-foot wingspan, the largest of eagles, and, with a lifespan of 30 to 60 years, one of the longest-lived. Blake Matheson, a friend of the artist, recalls sighting one, memorably: “...the Philippine Eagle glided past, at eye level, perhaps 50 yards out over the valley. We were close enough to see ... the creature’s expression with our naked eyes. The gray-blue bill cere seemed almost electric, and its long tawny and cocoa crest lay on its back in repose like an archer’s hood.... It glowed white like a window into the infinite. I have never been so inspired by such a vision of tremendous power, mass and martial strength... I will always be grateful.”
King Tides and Elusive Rails
(2016): The third of Tomb’s installations depicts, rather than a specific endangered bird, the effect of king tides in California in December and January each year. The extremely low and high tides expose normally hidden mice and small birds like rails to predation by hawks, falcons, herons and foxes. Tomb’s painted wooden cutouts, mounted on bases, seem to have left two-dimensional space in order to forage through the gallery, enveloping the viewer in nature’s struggle for survival in the marshlands.
Also shown are wall-mounted paintings and sketches of museum specimens that supplement Tomb’s field studies from life, revealing the artist’s ability to fuse scientific accuracy and vivid aesthetic form.
MARCOS DORADO: Immigrant Me
If David Tomb seeks to preserve natural life from human indifference and exploitation, the Fresno artist Marcos Dorado, a Mexican immigrant seeks to preserve the cultural life of America’s new immigrants and to show them the respect he missed as a child, mocked by other Mexican-American schoolmates for his handmade clothes and his ethnic lunches of burritos and tacos. "My goal,” he writes, “is to convey their struggle, which is my own. I want to put the spotlight on the positive contributions of immigrants that are here." While the recently unveiled Barack and Michelle Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald drew praise for their stylish departures from a tradition associated with racist/sexist domination, Dorado has chosen the most painstaking realism for his graphite drawings, which require poses of up to thirty hours. Each of the twenty drawings comprising the show is thus a major commitment in time and energy in a consumerist culture that prizes the slick, the quick and the disposable. The dramatically lighted, sculptural depictions of the artist’s friends and colleagues, e.g., Martin Nuñez, Calixte Aholu, Scott Kiche, Ani Chamichian, Bill Wolffmann, Gloria Dorado, Octavio and others—not limited to Latinos, by the way—are accompanied by the subjects’ responses to Dorado’s questions about how immigration and Americanization have affected their lives.
HOLLY LANE: Indwelling Nature
While Tomb and Dorado champion nature and culture, the San Jose artist Holly Lane explores in Indwelling Nature how culture may present nature in the artwork or artifact, e.g., in eclectic versions of old-school ornately carved pictures frames and pedestals. Executed in dark wood, they are reminiscent of Biedermeier furniture and Victorian gingerbread architecture; when gilded, they suggest the exuberance of Baroque decorative excess. It’s hard to tell whether these frames,or altarpieces, armored bulwarks protecting sacred images, and closed most of the year, are parodies or homages—or both. The exhibition curator Sarah Vargas writes, about Lane’s merger of picture and frame, inspired by illuminated (i.e., illustrated) manuscripts: Lane views pictorial space as an extension of mind space; to experience the painting we project our mind into the image. The spatial qualities of sculpture exist in our own physical space; we walk around it and proportion our bodies to it.
In addition to subverting the idea of art as an autonomous object of contemplation for disembodied viewers of the Clement Greenberg persuasion, Lane embraces historical modes of aesthetic discourse—namely myth and allegory, though given a contemporary, environmental twist. She envisions the canopy and tassels of The Leafy Earth Rests
as healing, and carves plant motifs connected with ancient medicinal containers; the apothecary jars appear again in Gentle Muse
, an homage to medicinal botany, accompanied by udder-like forms symbolizing “the milk of kindness—the nurture of trees.” Lane writes:
“We indwell nature and nature indwells us.... if we look at photos of the earth from space, we can see that our cities are nestled within nature. Furthermore, our bodies are subject to natural forces—sometimes delightfully so and sometimes not so delightfully. In my work, architecture is a metaphor for human consciousness and human achievement. In this piece [Indwelling] nature [as depicted in a small landscape painting of a deer seen at dusk before a dark forest] can be seen through the architectural frame, showing nature is behind human achievement, or it can be viewed as nature being held within the frame, protected.
In days of yore, it was thought that the king and the land are one. These days, we need to realize that we are linked with the planet and with each other, and time is running out.