@ Pulliam Deffenbaugh, 522 NW 12th, through March 27
I would like to start this review off by thanking our next president, John Kerry, for reviving the "flip-flop" and for making the act of mind changing impervious to criticism from liberals. I pulled a major Kerry this week that started in the Pearl District, at Jeffrey Mitchell's show at Pulliam Deffenbaugh. As I left the exhibition, I complimented the gallery owners on the smart show and felt like I had just seen something meaningful and uplifting. The next morning when I awoke, however, I was scratching my noggin, wondering what the hell that was all about.
Mitchell's high-concept, confusing works are manifestations of an imaginary world involving penguins, snow caves, elephants, and references to the Bible, Bjork, and Native American mythology. Mitchell moves fluidly between mediums, employing painting, photography, carved Styrofoam, vacu-formed plastic, printmaking, and ceramics in his private narratives. In short, the work on view here looks like it was created by somebody who reads every art rag out there, is above average intelligence and has a sharp associative mind, but is reluctant to lay himself bare before his audience.
My two favorite pieces in the show were window dressings that the artist created to be seen from the street. Carved from Styrofoam, the Keith Haring-like forms greeted passersby with a block letter "Hello," and held small ceramic elephants offering flowers. They are sweet, endearing pieces that create a sort of gateway into the gallery, letting visitors know that they are entering a different mental and aesthetic zone.
Once inside, viewers are presented with dozens of crudely modeled white ceramic figures displayed on swanky mirror-topped Styrofoam pedestals. Some are cheerful elephants, some saintly figures, and others are drunken blokes doing some homo-erotic male bonding. They all recall Chinatown tchotchkes and devotional figurines. Clumped together so closely and uniformly white, they are hard to focus on individually, and create a small mob of ceramic kitsch.
Penguins dominate the 2-D work, beginning with a black and white cut Plexiglas mirror. It features two penguins holding hands in a snowy landscape under a guiding star and is cute in a very IKEA way. The Apothesis of the Penguins, a muddily painted canvas, depicts the penguins, still holding flippers, standing on a cloud in front of what can only be interpreted as the pearly gates. Across the gallery, two black and white photographs depict scarier times ahead for the penguins. Mitchell created "snow caves" out of shaving cream and photographed them in various stages of melting ooze. Fresh white clumps of shaving cream represent the penguins, who look like they are being overwhelmed by some natural disaster. The snow cave is represented again in the painting The Presentation of the Light Bulb to the Council of the Penguins by the Elephant as Witnessed by the Bear Wearing a Beaver Mask Inside the Snow Cave, which illustrates the title with rough brushwork in muddy pinks and grays.
Then there are those elephants, ceramic pachyderms who trumpet, do handstands--and oh yes--present the light bulb to the Council of the Penguins. I asked gallery co-owner Rod Pulliam what all the elephants were about, and he listed off a litany of interpretations including Ganesh, the Hindu God, phallic trunks, and the symbolism of wisdom and eternal memory. At that point I had to tune out because it became obvious that Mitchell's use of the elephant symbolized everything I could associate it with, and nothing at all. It's an autonomous figure existing in Mitchell's private world, which is charmingly laid out but contains no guideposts or keys.
I was reminded of seeing Trenton Doyle Hancock speak about his work years ago, and vainly trying to follow his imaginary world of the Mound, vegan rebels, and his protagonist Torpedoboy. Finally I had the thoughts, "Why do I care about this childish fantasy," and, "Will there be any payoff to deciphering this quasi D&D storytelling?" Matthew Barney uses similar impenetrable narratives, characters, and mythologies that leave 99.9% of his viewers with responses like "I know I don't get it, but it must mean something. Besides, it sure was cool." I don't buy into the "come take a ride in my blender-like imaginary animal kingdom" school of storytelling. It's good for about 30 seconds of chuckles, which quickly dissolve into "what the fuck is he talking about" blank stares. The artists themselves relish delving into their secret worlds but keep viewers at bay with opaque jargon. This is not good communication and it's not good art-making. It's an exercise in glamorous narrative masturbation. CHAS BOWIE