| Mario Perez: Small Paintings
11am-5pm Wed-Fri, 11am-6pm Sat, Noon-4pm Sun, & by appt.
Through Nov 11
Joan Grona Gallery
112 Blue Star
Andrea Bowers: Nothing is Neutral
Noon-5pm Wed-Sun, noon-8pm Thu, & by appt.
Through Jan 28
445 N. Main
A smoking pipe is labeled “Compulsive Liar”; another “Slick Charlatan,” and I can’t help but think of Sigmund Freud, architect (or discoverer as you prefer) of the ego, superego, and id. Maybe the indicted pipes simply stand in for a father, but Freud is a psychological and pop-culture paterfamilias for Western European culture — which, perhaps not coincidentally, is fixated on meat as an alpha-protein source and a sign of material wealth. Among Perez’s paintings are closely framed raw cuts of beef, filigreed with messages such as “The End.”
In other frames, birds tweet messages. A Painted Bunting offers up “Joy,” a Green Jay sings “Glad to be here” — which read like a critique of the over-examined life and a slightly aggrieved thank-you note to humans that have done their best to exterminate so many species by destroying their habitats.
If I could wish for one thing in this show, it would be for the studies to have more detail; they hover between perfect realism and folksy primitivism and it’s disconcerting (although it does add to the impression that Perez is contrary by nature and reflex, generally good qualities in an artist).
Even without Freud, we can make a leap to Artpace via Perez, who works there, where Andrea Bowers Hudson (Show)room installation, Nothing is Neutral, opened last week. This densely layered, meticulously realized show effortlessly sandwiches the best and worst of our American cult of the individual into one exhibition with a series of photo-realist graphite and colored-pencil drawings. One set of drawings juxtaposes abortion-rights campaign buttons against ’60s-era textile patterns and palettes; “Never again” with a coat hanger nestles inside a Pop-Art flower design on one panel, a simple visual reminder that the reproductive-rights movement that resulted in Roe v. Wade was part of a larger cultural moment that celebrated personal freedom and expression over the culturally oppressive and homogenous World War II generation.
The humanity in the history is illustrated by enlarged letters — from women, men, married couples, fathers — to the Army of Three, San Francisco-based suburbanite women who pioneered the fight for abortion rights and who aided people in trouble with references to doctors in Mexico and DIY instructions. (The letters are also read aloud by a purposefully diverse set of actors in an accompanying video that seemed superfluous to me.”
But lurking quietly in the background is “Eulogies to One and Another,” Bowers’s wall-size graphite recreations of news accounts published in The Christian Science Monitor, Time World, washingtonpost.com and other online publications following the 2005 death in Iraq of a young, charismatic aid worker named Marla Ruzicka. The artist reversed the type, white against the dark-gray background like microfiche, highlighting the power of the printed (or digitized) word and evoking Maya Lin’s black granite fissure for the Vietnam-War dead on the mall in Washington D.C. The text of the first “eulogy,” for the vivacious blond from California, fills the frames; in the second set, the panels are solid gray save for the publications’ identifying info and the 28-or so lines that mention Ruzicka’s Iraqi driver, Faiz Ali Salim — the 43-year-old married father who in many ways made Ruzicka’s humanitarian-aid campaign possible. Even though the growing violence in Iraq makes it apparent that the country is more dangerous for Iraqis who work with Westerners than it is for the Westerners themselves, Salim’s death does not seem to us as compelling — perhaps because we prefer to see ourselves reflected in an adventurous, attractive philanthropist who inherited in many ways the privileges of the California-led abortion-rights revolution and its attendant devotion to youth, freedom, and individuality.
Nothing is Neutral is particularly powerful because it leaves the viewer in charge of the jury. Ruzicka’s life is not diminished in Bowers’s effort to question our celebration of the “bubbly” “surfer girl” while virtually ignoring the non-white working man behind the wheel, and the shortcomings of a me-first society do not override the right of individuals to control when and under what circumstances they bring children into the world. If you ask the reception desk to turn off the video, you’ll have a space well-suited to contemplating America’s achievements and failures — a perfect pilgrimage before you head to the polls on Tuesday.