Arts & Theater

Skulls, dolls, and birds at artspace1616

William Ishmael’s "Azeban"
William Ishmael’s "Azeban" Courtesy of the artist

Mima and Numan Begovic have filled artspace1616 with lots of good art this month. Maybe too much.

I was drawn to the gallery by “Skull,” a group show centering around a time-honored subject, curated by Pamela Skinner and Gwenna Howard whose Skinner Howard Contemporary Art on R Street where Beatnik Gallery is now is much missed.

Skinner and Howard included many of the strong artists they showed in their R Street space, as well as a few I hadn’t associated with them before.

When I walked into the front area of the gallery, I was struck by Susan Tonkin-Rigel’s “What Makes You Real,” a surreal, stream-of-consciousness piece in which the “skull” theme was submerged. I also liked Michael Shemcheck’s mixed media collages of skulls from scientific illustrations and ghostly echoes of skulls and Andries Fourie’s formally engaging mixed media piece that pits grainy photographic images of skulls against quirky green shapes that intrude on them in interesting ways.

Complementing these two-dimensional pieces, Numan Begovic’s clay sculpture of a rough, pitted round form with an imposing, twisted horn sprouting up from it and Pat Mahony’s bronze figures cast from animal bones that suggest skeletons pared down to their essentials striking yoga poses added texture and mystery to the show. I also liked Marc Foster’s strange, scary, cool alien/robot skull made of fused pages of National Geographic magazine with large bolts in its ears, as if a metal stake had been driven through it.

But the bulk of the exhibition in the front gallery consisted of Rogelio Manzo’s compelling oil and mixed media works on resin panels of over-sized skulls with meandering lines, abstract geometric forms, Baldessari-like balls, and subliminal decorative patterns from his “Tanatos” series. These cool, elegant, rich works were almost like a one-person show within a group show.

Moving into the interior space of the gallery, a portion of last month’s show of cast glass and aluminum sculptures by Michael Bishop and mixed media collage/sculptures by Lynn Criswell, who have each done impressive public art pieces in Sacramento, remains on view.

Both are extremely skilled artists whose works seem almost manufactured rather than hand-made. The works in this show were done during a six-month residency in Istanbul and reflect the uncertain future we face with threats from war and natural disasters brought on by climate change.

Bishop offers a pair of steel sawhorses set with red and black doll heads, toy tanks, and tiny houses. The colors make you think of a chess set of combatants lined up for a futile, irreconcilable battle between innocence and evil that leaves you wondering which is which. Other works involve miniature villages in red and black, the houses interspersed with objects that suggest both grenades and mutated corncobs, calling up associations with war and genetically modified crops.

Another of his complex pieces involving tanks and doll heads is backed by a double-edged wall installation by Criswell of tiny paintings of dead birds that form a shape that might be a tree with spreading limbs or a mushroom cloud. It’s a strong piece with a sense of poetic ambiguity that makes it compelling and thought-provoking. I liked less a series of wall pieces based on images of primary school children from a 1965 Yearbook that have been morphed into surreal, mutated forms, at times humorous but mostly harrowing.

The skull show continues in the smaller back section of the gallery, ushered in by Bishop’s diminutive bronze sculpture of a small fox head, topped by a tiny skull.

Among the works that stood out for me here are a large gold Day of the Dead skull with a crown of flowers by Maren Conrad and Danny Scheible; Kendall LeCompte’s “Eilethya Adorned with Offerings,” a fetish-like mixed media sculpture; William Ishmael’s “Azeban,” a raccoon skull mounted on a mirror, surrounded by a dynamic abstract arrangement of wooden sticks; and Raphael Delgado’s searing, “Skull in Navy Blue,” a work done in ink spray paint and acrylic on board.

Unfortunately, this section of the show trickles off and feels unconnected to either the front section of the show or the Bishop and Criswell works in the center gallery. Still, there are strong pieces on view in this section as well.

Bishop also has an installation in a long narrow side gallery in the form of long rows of cast plaster boxing gloves with an aluminum sculpture of an old Victrola phonograph horn suspended over them by a long, thin, red cord. It also deals with combat, past and present, in an ambiguous and suggestive way.

It’s an effective piece, but I almost wish the second section of the skull show had been installed there, where the mostly small works would have been more at home.

In any case, it was good to get a dose of the Skinner Howard sensibility again.

Skull Group Show; Michael Bishop, Lynn Criswell Show - artspace1616, 1616 Del Paso Boulevard. Through Oct. 29. 12 to 6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 12 to 3 p.m. Sunday. Free. (916) 849-1127.

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