As commercial galleries struggle to maintain their brick and mortar presence, exhibition opportunities for emerging artists, under-recognized artists and artists whose work presents retail challenges are far too limited. “Entrepreneurially activist” artists take matters into their own hands. They curate shows and create exhibition models within the collaborative and democratic structure of artist-run galleries.
Some of the most challenging, rigorous and searching work reflecting ideas echoing in the larger culture is presented in this way.
Axis Gallery is such a venue. For over 25 years the regionally acclaimed gallery has been showing the work of local, regional and nationally recognized contemporary artists. “Current Bodies” is a small survey of recent work by new Axis members Jamie Angello, Omar Thor Arason, Doug Dertinger and Aida Lizalde.
A yellow molded human head, black plastic storage crates, ceramic imprints of pummeling knuckles, sand, monochromatic oil paintings on Mylar and cryptic ink jet prints are just some of the components comprising this materially eclectic show. As a group the artists’ projects are concerned with sociological and cultural analysis, methods of representation, and are unified by themes of identity, memory, place and politics.
Unfortunately it takes awhile to unpack who is who and who did what. As if the artists took issue with their individual authorship, all the works are mixed together rather than installed in separate and discrete sections. Salon-style presentation increases the confusion.
Small, medium and large pieces are dotted throughout the space and inadvertently compete for attention with gallery signage and fittings. In this instance, aggressively irregular installation design undercuts the exhibition. The artists, the work and the viewer are poorly served. Despite the seemingly ad hoc aspect to the layout of the exhibition, strong works give “Current Bodies” heft.
Aida Lizalde is an up-and-coming ceramic sculptor and multidisciplinary artist. Although she is working toward her B.A. in art from UC Davis, she is already making ambitious work that rewrites postwar minimalism in concert with narratives on identity and labor.
Working with ceramics and commonplace construction materials, she uses her body and repetitive gestures to craft tersely poetic objects. “For throwing and for rising,” 2017, is arguably one of the strongest pieces in the show. Two particleboard boxes, made to stack precisely to the measurements of the cement blocks that support them, are filled with fist-sized chunks of ceramics and concrete mix.
The ceramic chunks are imprinted with the glaze-stained knuckle punches that formed them. Like the work of Ana Mendieta and Rona Pondick before her, Lizalde deploys distortion and fragmentation to reassert her connection with the earth, using her body to create trace evidence of visceral experience.
Doug Dertinger, an assistant professor of photography in the California State University, Sacramento, Design Department, presents a suite of enigmatic archival inkjet prints that both conceal and reveal landscapes of familiar vistas. The images are charged with disquieting atmospheres of espionage and hints of the extraordinary.
From the “Constellation” series, the silhouette of a street lamp appears over a cropped rooftop, evoking an ominously anthropomorphic gesture of surveillance. From “Traveler,” an ambiguous, foreshortened shadow hovers over a sidewalk like some dark angel roaming an incongruous habitat.
Recent Stanford M.F.A. graduate Omar Thor Arason paints surrealistic images of truncated, conjoined and disembodied male torsos and legs in charged scenarios of wrestling, subjugation and submission. Using the monochromatic method of grisaille painting, Arason tightly renders his modestly scaled figuration into sketchy backgrounds that suggest institutional interiors.
The calculated works are conceptual tropes, becoming intellectualized dioramas of political and psychological dominance.
Jamie Angello’s gesturally rambunctious sculptural hybrids and painted boxes of thickly clotted surfaces take culture’s measure in their replication of material and corporeal artifacts. His diverse body of work, “American Death Drive,” is a dystopic, neon-colored, plastic-coated vision of urban violence and denaturalization.
His work underscores the significance of bodily apprehension and like Dertinger’s work, how our emotional, spiritual and psychological perspective is informed by our physical presence and location. Angello’s work also provocatively leverages a pop sensibility into a group show that critiques power relationships within the context of our shattering social systems.