The Africa, Oceania, and Americas exhibit halls at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late '80s held a little-noticed zoomorphic form made in Africa in the first half of the 20th century. It was a pig, or maybe a hippopotamus — it wasn't important what animal it represented because it represented, in fact, all animals. In its homeland, where it was designed for use in ceremonies, it represented the fertile, fruitful earth, and the spirit of animal and nature. Combining organic materials like straw and leaves with human hair, blood, and feces, mud sculptures of known and imaginary forms take on spiritual value.

Like much African art, the zoomorphic form at the Art Institute was an object of ritual that — in its creation — took on magical powers. Some of that magic translates into the animal-shaped mud figures of Kathryn Spence, whose works grace the downstairs space at Finesilver Gallery this month.

The show offers both delights and inspirations. Spence's mud figures manage to keep the mystery intact, while providing identifiable shapes that play on a collective conscious. Spence's compelling, whimsical creatures are playful representations of everyday zoology using stuffed animals' shapes. Spence's stuffed animal forms carry forward the power of icons. They are hopes and dreams and childhood fables, the mythology of our collective childselves endowed with a new potency because they have escaped the mundane into the permanent world of art. Their whimsy is contagious.

Spence also takes the floor — literally — with a series of birds, crafted from paper and string, that hunt and peck their way across the gallery space in clusters. Spence constructed them from trash, pecking her way through the street-blown refuse, much as pigeons do. The birds are charming, but the mud figures, whether plopped on the floor or clumsily tipping off a chair, are near worthy of obsession. Spence maintains that the works deal with psychological and physical comfort; and one feels, in these reconfigured castoffs, that their new incarnations have earned them a sense of permanence that our consumer culture most often denies both objects and people.

Upstairs, Mark Bradford works an entirely different kind of magic. Where Spence's appeal is immediate and visceral, Bradford's contributions speak to the head before addressing the heart. These paintings look like a conversation read by computer punch cards, digitized into colorful squares of information, then organized by a 2-year-old following a CAD-CAM program. They are visual linguistics: rhythmic visual repetitions that act like language or music. Their semiotic nature is apparent to even the most casual interpreter, but what the conversations are, exactly, remains obscure. Bits of ideas are introduced in titles like "That was my car you saw." The titles don't actually complete a dialogue; they merely introduce it.

Bradford's admission that he works twice a week at a hair salon in El Lay, and that the phrases are often things he's overheard while cutting hair, adds a whole new spin to the work. Tellingly, Bradford's large canvases were all sold before the current exhibit opened — seems he keeps that salon day job for inspiration, not from desperation. While Bradford hails from Los Angeles, Spence calls San Francisco home. The two artists together show separate, clean visions of what art can encompass in the contemporary world. And Finesilver continues to provide a window to creative visions beyond our burg.

Bradford, Spence, Di Stefano
By appointment only
Through June 15
Finesilver Gallery
816 Camaron


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