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Simone Shubuck's revealing art isn't your standard garden of Earthly delights

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006
If Simone Shubuck were to introduce her new collection on Project Runway, she might describe it with the words "energy, emotion, complexity" or maybe "floral, raw, funny." Her current show, "In the Clutches of My Clutches," offers us a running narrative of her heroine's adventures and misadventures. Rife with a manic botanical power that expresses both enchantment and dismay, her works are entire worlds, populated by birds and figures. Crude yet delicate, funny but still elegant, they are as diaristic as a MySpace page, with humorous titles that give clues to their content.

To create these complex scenarios, Shubuck combines an impressive array of pictorial styles — some taken from art history, some from the street and cartoons, and some invented. She uses childlike pencil lines along with cutouts, cartoons, and elaborate repeated patterns, often based on historical fabrics. Like a child who draws the important things big without regard for reality, she doesn't hesitate to manipulate scale. She works in a rich variety of media — water-soluble colored pencil, graphite, ink and wash, watercolor, gouache, and collage — creating visual unity by repeating circular shapes and patterns, rendering overlapping forms transparent, and using symmetrical compositions.

In her previous works, the artist created groups of thematically linked narrative drawings that she showed in boxes, like deconstructed books, and sold as sets. Here she has removed the box and mounted the narrative on the gallery wall. Shubuck excels at the small scale, inviting the viewer to come close. You approach because you love the way she draws the red flowers with those elegant calligraphic lines, and you stay because of the funky little figures working out their lives in her great garden world.

The protagonist of these adventures is never alone. Shubuck populates her scenes with a chorus of judging figures, always kibitzing. In the drawings (and, apparently, inside the artist's head), there is a visual chatter — ego, libido, and superego all hard at work.

Monster Party/Party Monster is an unexpurgated Greek drama. A scarlet, many-petaled dianthus expands and glows like a hot sun, casting a shower of scribbled rays on the sex scene in the foreground. It's a triple fuck, with a smudged black monster on top of Tweety, who's mounting the heroine from the rear, as a golden swan beaks her in the mouth. A display case of antique treasures — costumed figurines and painted cups — becomes a chorus of impassive onlookers in a pillared temple. Vignettes of mythical subjects (recumbent Aphrodite, young Dionysus, a curious satyr) fill the remaining surface like plates on a wall. A cutout Macedonian paper doll floats at the right.

Dude You Are Totally Killing My Vibe is a moan and a howl. Shubuck repeats circular floral motifs — delicate patterned sprays, nosegays of cascading petals, and multiples of the omnipresent red dianthus — that pinwheel across the lower half of the picture. Muppetlike graffiti figures, rendered as smears of white gouache with spinning flower eyes, join the chorus and add to the complaint, which expands into the empty white space at the top of the picture.

In the largest and most complex work, In the Clutches of My Clutches (a line from a song by the Fiery Furnaces), separate scenes unfold side by side, compressed into a complex symmetrical arrangement. The central pyramid divides the piece into three distinct units. On the left falls a patterned panel (copied from a 1910 Viennese fabric). In the center, the same pattern reappears in diminished scale, folded and reformed as the floor and walls of two inset rooms. At the apex of the pyramid, a couple is bound back-to-back as towering mismatched birds tongue their love. Huge flowers leer with snaggletoothed comic faces. A miniature bathing scene at lower left shows off Shubuck's gift for pictorial invention, with five naked girls drawn in varying styles wading together in a pale-blue pool. Three Klimt-esque figures float at the far lower right of the pyramid, as an older male figure in a beribboned uniform stands like a ghost, his eyes lined with green. Compared to the smaller works in this show — each an intense scene— this piece is an entire movie in a single drawing.

Shubuck's process, unpremeditated and unselfconscious, is to think aloud on paper. She draws what comes to mind, and her issues are often identity and desire. Working in series, transitioning from one piece to the next, she experiments with different materials, grounds, and surfaces. While she works, she listens to music — Baobab from Mali, Animal Collective, jazz (Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra), hip hop (Jay-Z, Rick Ross), R&B (Justin Timberlake) — all of which provide soundtracks for her pieces.

For imagery and inspiration, Shubuck draws on many sources — her day job as a flower designer, her love of fashion, her passion for pop music, as well as her affinity for the art of the Wiener Werkstatt and artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, who both combined expressive figure drawing with elaborate patterns. A 1990s graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and one-time student/colleague of Barry McGee, Shubuck is a master of the graffiti caricature. She cites Philip Guston as a favorite, both for his early abstract work and for his later cartoon pieces. In her use of personal content confounded and obscured by blurs and scribbles, her work also has an affinity with the drawings of Cy Twombly.

Shubuck grew up two doors away from her Ukrainian grandparents and great-grandparents. They had gardens and chickens, wove rugs from rags, and cooked everything from scratch. Resourceful and inventive, they made do with what they had by necessity. Shubuck, making art "from scratch," carries on the family tradition. Her quizzical drawings are beautiful but not sweet, with bitter content and messy surfaces. They're layered, just like human experience, and people respond to them.

About The Author

Lea Feinstein


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