In this beaten-down economy, small art gallery shows feel more vital. Maybe that's because small galleries can't afford the distance of irony — earnest and close-up is where the pulse of art beats now. Three shows that opened toward the end of March offer work that thrives on intimate viewing. Like sleight-of-hand magic, they draw you in and refuse to give up their secrets even when you're standing right in front of them.
Lindsey White takes the theme for her show, "A Field Guide to the Atmosphere," from a vintage textbook she displays in a lovingly blown-up C-print photograph. The edition looks like it's from the '60s, when the gee-whiz hadn't quite vanished from the cultural idea of science. The sentiment this expresses — a willingness to believe — is compounded by another C-print showing an old box lantern flashlight with its brand in large letters on the front: Wonder.
In White's black-and-white video piece, "A Field Guide to the Atmosphere, Part Four, Grey Scale," a hand clutching a plastic cup rises repeatedly in an arc across the television frame. As the hand rises, the cup transitions suddenly from light gray to dark gray to black. The transitions are slightly jerky, as if registering shock each time a change occurs, but the overall effect is hypnotic and hopeful. Choice, in this piece, is not an agent of consumer guilt; rather, it's magical.
Atmosphere, wonderment, magic, all evoke the nebulous effect successful art has on us, the alchemy between viewer and object that creates an altered reality. Bert Bergen has been working along this line for years. His current exhibit, "The Giving Hands of Altered Destinies," continues his exploration of crystal forms as a path to transcendence.
Bergen, a Pacific Northwesterner by upbringing, brings both an Inuitlike restraint and a psychedelic horror vacui to his work. The gallery is papered in a fractal print drawn with a doodler's line, including imperfections that emphasize the organic nature of the subject. On top of this hang sewn and ink-drawn fantasies of the post-apocalypse. The work is eccentric, and whether he is as serious about the spiritual aspect as he seems (he offers a shamanistic ritual to "tune the frequencies of those who are willing"), Bergen displays a talent for folk sorcery.
As does Christopher Burch with his show, "Folk Blood Water Babies," which immerses viewers in a similar way. Alongside framed and unframed work, the artist has drawn on the walls of the bookstore and gallery, so that entering is like walking into a pop-up book. Burch favors a Pop Surrealist drawing style and a Goya-esque cast of figures in the process of transformation. A great whirling Mickey Mouselike head conjures up a cathartic shaking-off of dismal Disney "myth," while an abject-looking woman giving birth to a devilish red dynamo invokes sex, death, and labor all in one. The work celebrates the grotesque in its most ancient tradition, as a spiritual totem of life.
Given the chance to be magicked away, I doubt anyone would choose to live in any of these worlds — White's is too chill, Bergen's too freaky, Burch's too nightmarish. Thankfully, we don't have to choose: All three shows offer temporary transportation to the fringe.