T wo current group exhibitions--Hello Summer at the Basil Hallward Gallery inside of Powell's, and Telling Stories at Elizabeth Leach Gallery--signal the strong return of narrative illustration, to very different ends. Without knowing the educational backgrounds of any of the artists, Hello Summer feels like the gallery equivalent of the Cartoon Network, while Telling Stories feels like the Cartoon Network under the watchful eye of a graduate committee.

Local artist Bwana Spoons curated Hello Summer, which features Spoons himself, as well as seven other artists. Weighing in at a dizzying 69 pieces, Hello Summer is loaded to the gills with paintings of gorillas, boobies, teepees, surfers, Lego wizards, bearskin rugs, and Eskimos.

The most remarkable aspect of the show is the immediate lack of stylistic variation between the artists. At a glance, the artists seem to have been cut from the same cartoony mold, based on a love of underground comics and fantastic subject matter. That the artist's works are totally intermingled only emphasizes the aesthetic homogeneity, and the show comes off as an illustration of a specific movement, rather than a showcase of individual artists.

Bwana Spoons is a scarily gifted artist, channeling the spirits of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Frank Kozik, and Ren and Stimpy. His four-panel food chain series involves muskrats, peanuts, and a bulldog creature sporting a fu-manchu, and plays with scale and proportion in a way that demands repeat viewing.

The rest of the artists in the show seem to be struggling to find their own voices while remaining dedicated to the pop/lowbrow sensibility. Some of the artists have developed motifs they like and repeat them over and over again--Will McCurtain has just about mastered the gorilla's head against a splotchy background, and Kelly Turnstall has cornered the market on thin, feminist, topless women painted on airmail envelopes and dress patterns.

Despite the exuberant color palettes and visual energy in Hello Summer, the total lack of ambiguity and mystery within the art give the works a fleeting quality. There's not much to chew on--it's fun to look at, and then it's over. Just like a cartoon.

At Telling Stories at Leach Gallery, ambiguity runs amok, although many of the artists rely on the same linear, color-based drawing style, fantastic creatures, and epic battles like Goliath vs. the Natural Audubon Society. The Goliath work is a series of hypercharged painting collages by Los Angeles newcomer Antonio Puleo. Puleo collages ornithological prints against neon-patterned grounds, and infuses the visual plane with eye-popping hard edge color patches and cutout silhouettes. The juxtaposition of Day-Glo colors and etchings of warblers create a conflicting emotional tug and dynamic graphic effect.

Two months ago Ryan Boyle showed his installation Company Chode at Powell's; this month Company Chode is listed as the artist of seven related drawings in Telling Stories. All feature Boyle's immaculately rendered "chodes," slug-like creatures with exaggerated mouths and butt cheeks, leather boots and stethoscopes. Painted on the backsides of book covers and notepads, the chodes engage in games of domination, tug of war, leeching, and intravenous self-medication.

Chris Ballantyne's spare acrylics on paper are nothing if not reserved. In Untitled (Tree Trunks), fledgling sprouts emerge from the cracks of chopped-down tree trunks. Untitled (Broken Road) depicts an aerial view of a washed away cliff road that has been replaced with an identical highway farther up the mountain. The persistence of nature is an obvious theme, but the artist's cool, reserved drawing style denies a strong political angle.

Kristan Kennedy's suite of drawings It Was Like This is the least illustrative work of the lot, and packs the greatest emotional punch. Kennedy employs an arsenal of anonymous childhood silhouettes drawn in heavy black inks, faint grapefruit pinks, and sun-stained yellows. Her figures appear entangled in a webby atmosphere of ascending linear branches and lumpy, sagging bulges, which droop with loneliness and isolation. The drawings are presented like a set of family photographs--snapshots of inner realities that never made it to the family album.

Disjunctions like this, as well as Ballantyne's medium/message negation, and Puleo's techno/nostalgia rivalry are what create meaningful art experiences, and will always outlast flashy retro graphics. CHAS BOWIE

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