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Imaginary Forces

of SF Weekly 

Two exhibits take a look at alternate universes

Wednesday, Oct 26 2005
In a world where online gamers buy and sell their avatars on eBay, making things with your hands seems downright old-fashioned. Even the most meticulously rendered paintings and sculptures can't compete with the immersive digital worlds of EverQuest or World of Warcraft. But fine art is the original make-believe machine, and two current exhibits, "Fabulandia: Terra" at the Lab and "M Theory" at the Hosfelt Gallery, explore artists' visions of future and fantasy worlds.

Art has always been an alternate world, whether it's an artist's individual vision or the insular realm of galleries, auctions, and museums. "M Theory" -- named after an arcane physics theory in which reality is composed of an infinite number of possible universes -- attempts to organize a grab bag of works under a conveniently broad, high-concept title. In many cases here, "alternate universe" seems to mean simply "abstract." For example, Gerhard Mayer's collages of fragmented jigsaw puzzles have more to do with rethinking the conventions of collage than with a vision of other worlds. And Adam Ross' paintings of neon-bright verticals on a black ground could suggest a futuristic landscape, but could just as easily not.

Although its premise is similar, "Fabulandia: Terra" is more thoughtfully curated. By limiting itself to landscapes (in January, a second exhibit subtitled "Fauna" will explore life-forms of the future), it reaches beyond the art world to engage trends in pop culture and mass media. After all, envisioning the future has always been a pop endeavor. The magical allure of an admittedly artificial place that looks and feels real, whether it's Tomorrowland or Las Vegas, is undeniable. Immersion in another landscape is the definition of escape.

That said, the show's definition of "landscape" is anything but traditional. Carrie Lederer's installation, Offering, looks like Grandma's curio cabinet exploded on the front lawn. Surrounding one of her trademark abstract paintings -- in which plant forms swirl and spiral into patterns that fairly burst off the canvas -- is a maelstrom of found objects, both natural and faux: stuffed birds and duck decoys, pumpkins and ceramic cabbages, wood chips and AstroTurf. It's an altar to abundance and apparently endless fertility, in which everything, authentic or artificial, is welcome. If still life is nature mort, or dead nature, then Offering is nature reanimated, where the difference between the real thing and the simulation is undetectable, or at least unimportant. It's ironic that as the natural environment disappears, we feel motivated to create ever more synthetic versions of it. But the important thing, Lederer suggests, is not the divide between real and fake, but the energy, the life force, that imbues them both.

This blending of the natural and the artificial emerges in "M Theory" as well, albeit on a smaller scale. Robert Gutierrez's surreal drawing, Satellite, depicts a nightmarish blob of eyes, hair, and teeth fused with random architectural parts. Jee Young Sim's drawing of a similar cancerlike growth, Mi Tortuga Mama, is a little more lighthearted, including energetic plant life and cellular forms. On a different tack, Joyce Hsu's cute bee sculptures flap their mechanized wings, whirring and clicking in a metallic echo of live insects.

But the clear standout is John O'Reilly's Self-portrait, a collage that, although dated 1965, is perhaps the most heartfelt expression of the show's theme. Constructed entirely of black-and-white photographs, magazine images, and vintage illustrations, O'Reilly's vision of himself is simultaneously grand and humorous. His head is a large black circle supported by an over-size Greco-Roman arm. But beneath this curiously blank visage is a tiny, slyly grinning photograph of a man's face (probably the artist's) peeking out above an old-fashioned anatomical drawing and a collection of tiny figures, including a squatting Picasso. Beneath this impish tableau, the bottom half of the figure is subsumed by another large hand that wraps around to embrace the underside of the moon, from which emerges a mountain range composed of two huge breasts. O'Reilly's image is both all-encompassing -- the self as world -- and humble, a touching embodiment of the cobbled-together creatures we all are.

O'Reilly's fantastic imagery remains contained within an artistic tradition of self-portraiture, but James Sansing, in "Fabulandia," manipulates the gallery's columns to extend his fantasy world into the real one. The first column, Support System, is wrapped in a miniature ruined city, a model that might feel at home in a Lord of the Rings movie. Fragments of tiny stone and brick structures, interspersed with dried plants and animal skeletons, cling to the vertiginous surface as if they've been moldering there for eons. Invisible Column is a complete invention, a square clay outline on the floor plus four hanging wires, delineating -- drawing, really -- a fictive new pillar. Finally, Melting Column is coated with plaster so that it appears to be melting like a candle. At the top of this real structure, the ceiling of the gallery begins to break down, its metal grid snarled around the column and its pressboard tiles hanging torn and jagged. This sequence of interventions takes the viewer from an artificial representation of ruin to a total fiction to a deconstruction of the gallery space itself, linking the fantasy of destruction with concrete physical deterioration. It's a vision of future decay, but it's also a statement about creation, about the process by which invented things become part of our world.

"Fabulandia" and "M Theory" have seized upon a contemporary zeitgeist: The virtual, imagined world is not only more appealing than the real one, but it's also increasingly indistinguishable from it. There's nothing to keep art from joining movies, games, and theme parks as vehicles for escape. But the best works still remind us of their deception, even as they draw us in to imaginary worlds.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota


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