by David M. Roth
The once-intertwined inclinations of Conceptualism and Funk, once derisively tagged as Dude Ranch Dada by Hilton Kramer, are alive and well in the work of Ron Peetz, a Sacramento-area artist who’s made a long career out of fusing text to provocative sculptures made of found and fabricated objects. In this showing, incised marble slabs, a barbed wire-wrapped crucifix, a baseball bat converted to a paint brush, figures made of welded machine parts, stacked bibles, modified thrift store paintings, altered hand tools and a crushed bucket (above) figure prominently as jumping off points for serious and sometimes sardonic examinations of faith and its often toxic relationship to politics.
Peetz, 73, came of age professionally in the late 1960s, when giants like William T. Wiley, Stephen Kaltenbach and Bruce Nauman dominated the scene at UC Davis. Their influence, while discernable, has never overshadowed Peetz’s innovations. The methods by which he marries messages to objects are uniquely his.
Defaced Presidential Artifact, a marble tabletop inscribed with Donald Trump’s pussy-grab boast, rests on the floor, shattered. But what exactly was it that shattered? It surely wasn’t Trump’s candidacy. It was our expectation of civil behavior from those seeking high office. Commander-in-Chief, a sheet metal mask with a walnut “brain” in a vise, has a hand grenade dangling off sealed lips. It’s a play, presumably, on the WWII slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” revamped for the present to highlight Trump’s intemperate taunts against North Korea. The Pugilist, another such swipe, shows a lone eye, peering out from a hole in the aforementioned bucket. Sumerian Improvised Explosive Device 4,500 B.C. shows the face of an ancient bearded man superimposed on chunk of clay shaped like a warhead. In Meet Your Maker, Peetz wraps a crucifix in barbed wire and tops it with a grenade. As ever, the artist’s views, concerning the links between ideology, faith and war, remain irrepressibly sharp.
Not everything is so well aimed. Two life-sized figures made of welded scrap metal too closely resemble (in stripped-down form) similarly conceived works by Clayton Bailey and Robert Hudson; while Swinging for the Fences, a purposefully ham-fisted abstract painting made with a brush attached to a baseball bat, targets the pretensions of Abstract Expressionism. Four decades ago when conceptualists declared painting dead, a critique such as this might have resonated. Today it feels more like a relic of a lost cause.
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Interspersed among these sculptures are 23 works (mostly on paper) by Phil Amrhein, another Sacramento veteran who seems to grow better with age and each outing. For the past decade he’s focused his explorations on a single color, black, deploying it in myriad shapes and forms, but with an unwavering commitment to examining how it can transmit light. While the blotchy centers of these gestural works are largely impenetrable, shapes defined by irregular outer edges, allow light (or at least the illusion of it) to seep in. In this exhibition, he’s also allowed color, in the form of spray-painted patinas, to creep in to an even greater degree than before, setting off associations to atmospheric conditions and geological phenomena. That same judicious spraying also has the effect of softening the imagery, imparting a gauzy, out-of-focus quality that at times may make you think of Rothko and of the quilt/cloud-like paintings Sam Francis did in the mid-1950s. Also on view are a handful of medium-scale canvases in which color figures even more prominently than in the works on paper. In one notable instance, a plaid grid peeks out from behind two black rectangles, as if the artist were trying to blot out an Alicia McCarthy painting in the manner of Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning.
Such works chart the distance Amrhein’s travelled in the past decade. In 2009, he was making raw, exuberant, exclamatory black marks on paper that recalled Keith Haring. While vestiges of that work can still be detected in a couple works in this show, Amrhein today seems more focused on visualizing the ephemeral than giving vent to the neural impulses that once governed his hand.
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Ronald Peetz: “Artifacts” and Phil Amrhein: “Mostly Black” @ Artspace 1616 through February 25, 2018.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.