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Shows & Waterston @ Haines

Shows: "Face K" 

This pairing of virtuosos is, without question, the painting event of 2011. It captures Shows, a peerless collagist, at a breakthrough moment, and Waterston, an established master, at the peak of his powers, extending his prodigious skills in a fresh series of small-scale paintings complimented by a stunning piece of high-Goth sculpture. Both artists employ landscape but their intentions and orientations couldn’t be more diverse.  

Shows pursues a vision of the Earth’s geologic past in cycles of creation and destruction viewed from some indefinite point in the future, one in which humankind’s destructive sashay across the planet is but a footnote, a trail of insignificant debris. Waterston paints lush, intricately rendered dreamscapes in a style that betrays the twin influences of the Hudson River School and the Edo Period (1603–1867) of Japanese painting. Where Shows takes a cosmological view of things, compressing eons into sprawling epics, Waterston, in his canvases, is all about seeing one’s own mortality in the face of nature, an essentially Neo-Romantic view to which he adds a postmodern spin.
Of the two artists, Shows, in this exhibition, has traveled the furthest since her last big splash, back in 2006, when she won the SECA award and knocked everyone out who saw the accompanying show at SFMOMA. This time, instead of depicting vast tracts of mine-ravaged land in wall-sized collages made of cut paper, she’s focused her attention more narrowly on the booty itself: minerals, a topic the SF artist knows well from having grown up in Alaska. In Split Array minerals aren’t just the artist’s subject, they are her source material and raw material. It’s a stunning bit of mimesis.
Detail: "Face K", 2011, ink, acrylic, mylar, sand, canvas, plastic, engraving, 82 x 48" 
The eight large-scale pictures on view are based on scans of fist-size chunks of pyrite (aka “fool’s gold”) whose “faces” convincingly mimic the features of exotic landscapes. These she copies onto large sheets of aluminum using a mixture of paper, mylar, paint, mica, brass, plastic, ground rock, sand, ink, plexiglass crushed glass and other materials.  The resulting collages are as painterly as they are sculptural. At a distance their primordial features (chasms, fissures, glaciers, ridges, oceans, magma flows) jump out at you like topography in an aerial photograph. Close up they flatten out, like paintings. Don’t bother trying to visually disassemble them. The illusions produced by Shows’ seamless integration of materials is so complete you’d think she was working from a palette of molten ore. The resulting fictional universe, built of colliding geometric planes and quavering molten forms, flips back and forth between earthly and otherworldly. Reflective materials and scratchings on the aluminum substrate function as the equivalent of photographic highlights. They amplify the sci-fi aspect, pushing some pictures, like Face E, practically into Surrealism. Staring into its mirrored horizontal bands, you think you’re looking “through” the picture onto an infinite pool of light until you see your own reflection.
Installation view: "Sulfur"
This piece of opacity serves as convenient metaphor for what has always been the slipperiest aspect of Shows’ work: her thinly veiled environmental agenda. Like the photographer Edward Burtynsky to whom she’s been compared, Shows is a master of wresting beauty from toxicity. Her work, which isn’t the least bit didactic, relies on a subtle presentation of evidence to guide viewers into recognizing their own complicity in the processes she pictures. She does it here with a pile of consumer waste strewn across the floor. The most significant aspect of this unsightly display of faux toys and electronic gadgets is that the objects are cast in sulfur.  Sulfur, it should be noted, has actual value, whereas the subject of the paintings, pyrite, does not. It’s within that contradiction — between beauty and ugliness, value and worthlessness – that we experience the essential frission of Shows’ art: a pitch-perfect integration of craft, concept and understated ideological purpose.  The seminal German collagist Kurt Schwitters (1997-1948) once boasted (correctly) that he could make “paintings” out of anything. In Split Array, Shows proves, once again, that she can too, using pure abstraction to serve the needs of representation.
Waterston, by contrast, sticks mostly to conventional materials: paint, paper, canvas and wood. While the scenes he paints shifts with each body of work, Waterston remains committed, in his bravura technique, to depicting environments that look as if they were conceived in a tropical hothouse and painted as if the artist were looking at the world through the window of a spacecraft or a submarine.  This produces a certain detached feeling, but it’s consistently overshadowed by a stronger sense of engagement telegraphed by hot colors, dense atmospherics and disorienting perspectives, often combined in single paintings. A veteran explorer of the Kantian notion of the sublime, Theosophy and Eastern traditions, Waterston, in Forest Eater, takes us to the volcanoes of Hawaii in 24 small-scale works that are intimately displayed in the gallery’s back room alongside a remarkable pedestal-mounted sculpture.
Waterston: "Magma Study", 2010, watercolor on paper, 6 x 12"
For Waterston, who for years has trained his eye on the infinite cycle of rebirth and death, the volcano is a perfect subject. Regurgitating the Earth’s very core, volcanoes remake the surface of the planet through violent, toxic eruptions that cloud the sky and spew rivers of molten rock. Waterston captures the primordial spectacle of it all: the fiery explosions, the steaming fissures and so forth. His depictions of it in watercolors, which fill one wall, reveal a mastery of Asian techniques: stains, ghostly impressions and misty skies and other signifiers of the ineffable.  In contrast, his oil paintings, on an opposing wall, are more specific. Flow and Schwarzwald No. 1, both heavily impastoed, describe molten lava in a texture that resembles wet tar. It drips off the canvases. 
"Pahoehoe (flow)", 2011, paint, wood, metal, plastic, 55 x 50 x 40"
A similar literalness operates in Pahoehoe (flow), a pedestal mounted sculpture made of paint, plastic, metal and wood that looks like a lava flow cast in styrofoam. The biomorophic/grotesque aesthetic of it provides humorous counterpoint to the studied lyricism of everything else, including Waterston’s now-trademark silhouettes, several of which poignantly capture the visual cacophony of unearthed trees. 
Waterston may look east for inspiration, but what I get out of his paintings is something akin to the existential dread that pervades Southern novels. I’m not saying there’s a telltale heart beating inside his canvases, only that the artist is exercising some serious mojo.  As Waterston told FAMSF curator Timothy Anglin Burgard: “Painting is the great accomplishment of alchemy.  Paint itself holds the possibility of meaning waiting to signify.” 
If that’s the case — and how could it not be? — Shows and Waterston are definitely performing some serious acts of signification, the likes of which are everywhere to be seen but too seldom realized at such a high level. 
# # #
Leslie Shows in conversation with Larry Rinder @ Haines Gallery: Wednesday, Dec. 14 @ 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Leslie Shows: “Split Array” and Darren Waterston: “Forest Eater” @ Haines Gallery through December 24, 2012.
Photos: Monique Deschaines/Haines Gallery
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.



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