Ars Longa, Vita Brevis 

Artists clobber our outmoded ways of thinking, sans sledgehammer.

Despite the depressing animal-video flap in San Francisco a few weeks ago — in which the San Francisco Art Institute canceled an exhibit showing videos of animals being bludgeoned to death — the Propagations show at Johansson Projects considers the dangers and mysteries of modern life without sensationalism, deploying instead beauty, humor, and even creativity. A post-American, post-petroleum, multi-polar world order is emerging; its signs, the proliferating "transmissions, replications, and disseminations" of natural, cultural, and technological hybridization, are given metaphorical form here by five imaginative (but not infamous) artists who quietly clobber our outmoded ways of thinking instead of pandering to them.

Painters Alexis Amann and Kiersten Essenpreis both employ a linear, shadowless illustration style reminiscent of children's books in order to subvert consensus reality and put a weird spin on their memories of childhood and adolescence. In Amann's bizarre consumerist world, teenaged girls sport tattoos and appliqués indiscriminately on skin and clothing: dead fish and birds with X'ed-out eyes, harpies, tombstones, caption balloons, sunfish, dolphin fish, Russian witch. Essenpreis' young heroines inhabit a more subdued Sendak City in which solitary girls are sardonically menaced by snowdrifts of extracted teeth; spider crabs, jellyfish, and octopi; and malfunctioning fireplaces. Painters Tadashi Moriyama and Rebecca Whipple employ other styles in order to comment on ecological imbalance and war, respectively. Moriyama's paintings depict cities from "an ancient future" from a cosmic viewpoint, with punchcard-like tiny buildings (roofless, and corrugated inside, like lightbulb packaging) creeping across the natural world like mold or coral. With their gentle surrealism they're reminiscent of Jean-Michel Folon, while his animated films (viewable on his web site) suggest the spiritualized nature of Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke). Whipple employs the exquisite style of Persian and Indian miniatures in her ironic depictions (with their sentimental floral titles) of the bombing of Afghanistan, with "ibex, bulls, disembodied Afghanis, mountains, trees, exploding camels and river," the looting of the Iraq National Museum, and armored vehicles surrounded by headless, torsoless soldiers. Paul Hayes' exhilarating installation of wire-suspended folded paper charges the gallery space with visual power, as a curved stream of linear black forms (abstracted fish?) sweeps through the fluttering winged white ones (birds?).

Whipple in an interview admired Shakespeare's weaving of difficult content into "beautiful and seemingly fanciful" artifacts ... "able to withstand time." What Francis Bacon termed "the brutality of fact" is usually best presented as seen from an aesthetic distance, neither too little (untransformed, as in the San Francisco show) nor too much (aestheticized, as in mass-media death porn), clothed in the shining, durable raiment of art. Through May 2 at Johansson Projects (2300 Telegraph Ave., Oakland). or 510-444-9140.


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