The flame erupting upward in Jon Casey Clary’s Campfire is like a spiritual twin to Hokusai’s Great Wave. It dominates the frame, daring the viewer to look elsewhere, knowing that it will be the thing remembered when the gazer looks away. Gathered around it in a loose circle are the campers, visible only where the blaze has illuminated a scrap of clothing, an arm or a head. Their faces are signified only by an erasure: the fire has stripped their features and individuality away completely. The pale ovals serve as looking glasses reflecting back the conflagration.
Clary makes up one third of Root Division’s recent show Three Angles. The works of all three artists grabbed my attention, but Campfire dominated much of my visit, not only because of its striking composition but by virtue of the fact that it rewarded repeat viewings. The signage reveals that it’s constructed of paper mounted on a panel, the former incised to reveal the blaze of orange underneath. Those spots illuminated by the fire, the faces or a ribbon of torso, are also the result of stencil-like cut-aways. If you look closely at the heads there are scratches or the pattern of a thumbprint visible on some of them. Near the top of the flame where it stretches to engulf the top left of the picture there are sworls and eddies where Clary overpainted thickly applied curlicues or applied glue to the canvas. They are invisible at first but pop out when seen from an angle and the overhead gallery lights hit them right.
The scene is a stark contrast to camping outings as I remember them. Generally you huddled about the fire, close but wary, hunched on the ground or a rock. The fire sputtered happily in front of you, hypnotic to watch, and the spread of night above you tended to make you feel smaller: a reminder of your place in the scheme of themes. The campers in the painting all stand, hands thrust into hoodies or jean pockets dumb to the torrent in front of them. The tableau seems something more akin to Viking funeral pyre or pagan ceremony. The campfire, expanding like a geyser, gives every indication that it threatens to get out of control. The nonchalant postures of those gathered about it add an air of mystery to the proceedings. If danger exists they are unconcerned, complicit. But the sky is the same as I remember. Clary has captured the look and feel of a starry night unmarred by the lights of city or suburb by splattering white paint against the black oil and acrylic.
Nearby, in another piece, he has mimicked the look of old classic travel posters, if not the message. A cruise ship is set against a sheet of clear water with mountains looming on the horizon. A flowery font proclaims the name of the piece Fly Now, Pay Later. As an added reminder of the high price our planet is paying for our extravagant indulgences, the spindly scaffold-like legs of an oil derrick project from the bottom of the boat freezing it in place.
His Interior With Alcatraz eschews no such easy to read message. The room is hard to identify. What look like trays or glass boxes line the walls, and a grid stretches along the ceiling which might be a skylight, a grating or fluorescent lighting. Floating in their midst is a model-sized representation of Alcatraz Island seemingly scooped right out of the Bay. Perhaps it’s some kind of architectural salad bar or science lab?
One of Root Division’s staff pops out of nowhere to light up Holley R. Coley’s paintings tucked away in a back corner. Turns out she’s not part of the exhibit but they’re worth noting for their tongue-in-cheek fondness for their subject matter. In each Coley makes a sly jab at our representations and expectations of those who have proved too darn stubborn to “cross over.” The ghosts retain their supermarket Halloween sign salt and pepper shaker physiques, their eyes and mouths interchangeable “O’s.” In one they don curly locks or flapper cuts to cover up their terminal baldness and in another we find an elegant looking mermaid ghost, stretched out to sun herself no doubt, but mouth ready at any time for a good unearthly wail.
I chose in this post to focus mainly on a single piece so unfortunately the other two featured artists do not receive the attention here they deserve. But if you catch their names showing up in future shows I urge you to seek them out. Joshua Aaron’s experiments in détournement mix Phaidon regulars with cel animation stills, personages from Corbet and van der Weyden mingling and scrambling along Looney Tunes forest landscapes. Kevin Earl Taylor’s The San Francisco Mammal (Second Sighting) presents our fair city hitching a ride atop a massive sperm whale. Lou Reed’s Last Great American Whale perhaps? I’m currently plowing through Moby Dick so this massive oil painting of a species hunted nearly to extinction served as a nice complement to the reading, and perhaps a warning or a rebuke. We all go down together after all.