Through the Looking Glass 

"The Drawing Show" shows what Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery does best: highlight unconventional, edgy artists.

It'll be a sad day in Oakland when Lizabeth Oliveria packs up her Clay Street gallery and moves to San Francisco. In its two short years of existence, her art space has made a name for itself as one of precious few East Bay galleries to feature unconventional, edgy contemporary artists -- some local, some internationally renowned, many working in unusual media.

The next few weeks are your last chance to catch Oliveria's final exhibit on this side of the Bay, "The Drawing Show," featuring works by Marcel Dzama, Neil Farber, Jason Jagel, Geoff Chadsey, and Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame. Drawings might sound a little tame for a gallery that has hosted such offbeat exhibitions as Marina Vendrell's surgically altered stuffed animals and Steve DeFrank's Lite-Brite portraits, but these are hardly mundane exercises in pen and ink. They are a chance to get inside the heads of five artists who treat paper like Alice's looking glass -- a series of excursions into strange and often twisted subject matter.

The best-known of the five is undoubtedly Oakland resident Daniel Clowes, whom Newsweek has dubbed "the greatest underground cartoonist in America, after R. Crumb." Clowes' main claim to fame is his authorship of the comic novel Ghost World; he also cowrote the script to the movie it inspired with director Terry Zwigoff. Thrust into the spotlight by the movie's success, Clowes now teeters on the precipice of national celebrity -- no longer truly underground, but still not quite mainstream, either.

Oliveria's show includes six pages from Clowes' various comic projects David Boring, Ghost World, Eightball, and Dutch TV. A single comic-book page is like a single puzzle piece; appreciating it as a stand-alone work of art hanging on the gallery wall presents a unique challenge. Since they're all excerpts from longer comics, it's not easy to make sense of the stories they tell unless you've already read the books they come from, although maybe Clowes has become popular enough for the gallery to assume that most of us have. Nor do the drawings give us much insight into the artist's creative process; there aren't any whited-out lines or pasted-over text bubbles that would show his hand at work.

But even out of context, it's easy to appreciate Clowes' penchant for the strange, dismal, and alienated. A page from a 1998 issue of David Boring includes several of his favorite motifs: young people who are inexplicably old at heart, deadpan expressions of boredom and angst, cryptic verbal exchanges, and a drawing of the back of a boy's head as he walks alone on a city street. The artist himself counts that last one among his trademarks -- an expression of chronic alienation and anonymity.

Clowes' two drawings of Ghost World characters Enid and Rebecca, one showing them from the front and the other from behind, seem like a play on teen-zine pull-out posters, or those pre-printed cut-out dolls you can buy at the fabric store and sew yourself. "America's Favorite Teen-Agers!" proclaims the drawing's headline, even though we all know it ain't so, and Enid and Rebecca would certainly agree. Clowes made these drawings just last year -- while the movie was in theaters, not while he was working on the original comic novel -- which makes it interesting to speculate about what he intended them to mean. Maybe an imagined sarcastic reply to the deluge of merchandising offers that didn't exactly come pouring in after the film was released? Can you imagine these two lonely misfits, Clowes seems to be asking us, on a Burger King cup or a Cosmo Girl advertisement?

Clowes is probably the only one of the five artists in Oliveria's drawing show who would call himself a cartoonist. But two others, Marcel Dzama and Neil Farber, also are remarkably adept at packing a profound sense of strangeness into just a few drawn lines.

Dzama and Farber, both 27 years old and both from Winnipeg, Canada, have worked together for years as part of a creative collective calling itself the Royal Art Lodge. The fabulously prolific Dzama, whose typical production is about a hundred drawings per month, creates minimalistic ink-and-watercolor images in which usually cute and familiar things suddenly turn ugly, or at least intensely surreal, full of comic mayhem and unexplained violence.

Bears with moustaches threaten to club a cowering wolf wearing a man's suit. Five oddly dressed, smiling people raise their hands, zombie-like, at a recently decapitated man. Six fire-breathing mutants face off against an equal number of pistol-toting, masked schoolgirls. Dzama apparently has an endless supply of these oddball vignettes, which come off like Grimms' fairy tales turned grimmer, and Oliveria says there's plenty weirder where these came from. Dzama even uses an oddball medium -- root-beer syrup -- as an undercoat for the watercolors, which gives his drawings an earthy hue and a deceptively sweet smell.

Dzama's Art Lodge cohort Neil Farber leaves the root beer to his friend and sticks to regular ink and watercolors, but his drawings are even stranger than Dzama's. They give you a queasy feeling not so much of impending violence, but of violence that has just occurred -- that you've arrived too late to prevent. In one drawing, children mill around their play area as two of their friends lay prone on the ground, maybe bitten by the snake nearby. In another, a little boy sucks red poison through a straw with the corpse of his small friend stretched out beside him.

Farber's deliberately awkward drawing style is an essential part of the horror in his little picture-stories. His crooked lines and mushy, irregular forms are not so much childish as primitive, making the imaginary violence seem like the products of a genuinely sick mind. Although they contain elements of cartoon violence, you can't laugh them off as easily as you could with a cartoon. And unlike Wile E. Coyote, Farber's funny little characters won't move again after they hit the pavement.

San Francisco resident and California College of Arts and Crafts graduate Jason Jagel shares Farber's aptitude for strange, dark subject matter, but his drawings are infinitely more elaborate than Farber's creepily simplistic images. Full of arrows and furiously scribbled text, they look like highly detailed but totally disorganized flow charts. Their tiny size and relentless complexity invite us to step up close to the paper and examine his manic musings from close quarters, as if it would ever be possible for an outsider to figure it all out. Most of them focus on stream-of-consciousness rants and anxieties, occasionally taking a brief detour into full-fledged nightmares. But here and there you also can spot small threads of a storyline with a completely different trajectory, one that pleads -- to whom, who knows -- for peace and human compassion.

San Francisco-based Geoff Chadsey, in some ways the most traditional of the five artists, uses colored pencils to create exquisitely detailed, etching-like drawings. But their apparent realism is deceptive; they are actually composites of many different photographic and digital images. "Boxer (Juvenile)" shows the face of the rapper Juvenile on someone else's large, fleshy body, in a room that is a combination of the artist's studio and a friend's apartment. Unlike the other works in the show, the strangeness of Chadsey's drawing does not seem ironic, or joking, or deliberately morbid. Instead it is strangely seductive, asking us to suspend disbelief and imagine ourselves inside its meticulously and lovingly rendered, but totally make-believe, world.


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