In Your Face 

Two Sonoma County painters manifest rational exuberance.

During the heyday of postmodernism in the 1980s, art writers often invoked nature and culture. The natural world, according to this thinking, was becoming irrelevant, as Americans spent more and more time staring into glass screens and windshields; in the postindustrial Information Age, the mediasphere would be the new reality. Deregulation and privatization dominated public discourse in the age of talk radio, and the political left retreated into its ivory towers, comforting itself with sour-grapes theory (nothing is real!), navel-gazing identity politics (dead white males don't fool us!) and calculated irreverence (religious/patriotic imagery + nasty materials). Too often, what emerged was a deliberately abstruse, self-referential art that winked at its own emptiness; in some extreme cases, there was almost nothing to look at. Now, après la deluge, we're more subdued and thoughtful, so it's a good time to rediscover the pleasures of looking. The colorful paintings of Lisa Beerntsen and Tony Speirs, deriving from nature-based abstraction and mass-culture-based pop, respectively, reward both casual viewing and extended looking — and there's plenty to see.

Beerntsen's acrylics on canvas and mixed-media collages on board depict clusters of flowers, tendrils, roots, fronds, pods, seeds, and spores in a kind of paean to germination and growth. Scale is subjective here, with tiny spores and massive blossoms rendered at roughly equivalent sizes. Beerntsen also takes liberties with space, employing the nonperspectival, flat, shallow relief space of Abstract Expressionism, which here suggests microscope or telescope views with entities tiny or vast drifting in and out. But it's the color of these works that makes them sing. In "Sprung," for example, the overall golden tonality in enlivened by gray-blue, green, and orange patterned disks that inevitably suggest fruits and spices. Some of the collages achieve a poetic allusiveness far beyond their modest scale, transcending even the lyricism of the quite successful larger botanicals.

Speirs' acrylic paintings on panel blend pop surrealism and commercial nostalgia to create an alternate universe somewhere between the impish Walt Disney and the perverse R. Crumb. Motifs from 1940s and 1950s illustration and cartooning (the androgynous Speedy Alka Seltzer; Bugs Bunny waterskiing atop a WWII twin-fuselage P-38 fighter plane; gartered legs; a beckoning Tastee-Freez ice-cream cone; the Morton Salt girl; Monopoly's Rich Uncle Pennybags; and various big-eyed anime-style characters, including a lady bumblebee in the Betty Boop vein) are mixed with wallpaper patterns, postcard signage, and Chinese characters in a multitemporal cross-cultural mashup. Through June 26 at Kuhl Frames + Art (412 22nd St., Oakland). or 510-625-0123


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