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Rockin' Dixie 

Two Southern-fried artists bring politics and religion to light, while Grace Slick checks her pulse

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
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As smirking candidates and partisan spin doctors keep the spotlight focused on Florida, a pair of solo exhibitions by Bay Area artists at Catharine Clark Gallery are similarly spawned by life below the Mason-Dixon Line. Travis Somerville was born in Atlanta and raised by hippie activist parents who took the future painter to peace marches and protests during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. If his experience growing up in Georgia (and, later, Tennessee) ran counter to the deeply ingrained stereotype of the American South as a breeding ground for racist sheriffs, right-wing rednecks, and Bible-thumping bigots, it also fostered a fiercely felt social consciousness that has fueled Somerville's art for over a decade.

Somerville's pantheon of post-antebellum heroes may include Martin Luther King Jr., Truman Capote, Malcolm X, and Tennessee Williams, but this hardly implies that everything's coming up roses. The handsome, nude-hardwood frames containing these fecund mixed-media canvases make viewing the images akin to peering into open graves (or make them seem ripe for a flowering, or perhaps for a resurrection of social activism down in Dixie). What distinguishes Somerville's fiery postmodernism, aside from the fact that he's a first-rate painter, is that his work is shot through with passion and sincerity rather than smug irony and ivory-tower detachment. Somerville is nothing if not engaged.

In "Song of the South" he pits good against evil from the vantage point of a Southern, white liberal. Skillfully drawn images, appropriated and fragmented, float atop architectural blueprints, stormily whitewashed surfaces, and unstretched canvas. Huge apparitional heads play off Uncle Remus cartoon characters that perpetuate racist stereotypes (Brer Bear, Tar Baby). The sheer size (approximately 7 feet by 11 feet) of these politically charged palimpsests gives them the authority of (revisionist) historical paintings or freedom flags.

Taking its title from the old Woody Guthrie song, This Land Is My Land depicts Andrew Jackson's disembodied head (gorified by a bloody halo) hovering above the inscription "The Old Home ain't what it used to be." Old Hickory's feather-breathing mouth is gagged with a red, polka-dot bandanna reminiscent of smallpox, which alludes to his implementation of the Indian Removal Act. Barbed collage elements include a copy of JFK's inaugural address and a pamphlet for the antihistamine Claritin. Ghost-white billows wriggle behind animistic black tree silhouettes that bring to mind either Rorschach inkblots (we see what we want to see) or sulfuric acid sinkholes eating away the fabric of Southern society. A tiny noose hangs from a branch right above a stylized "t," suggestive of a Christian cross. Although it's never explicitly spelled out, the Bible wafts omnipresently throughout Somerville's work: Religion is often seen as duplicitous and condoning of racist views and violence.

Danielle Giudici's equally fork-tongued "Waiting for a Sign..." was inspired by a recent sojourn through the South, during which she photographed signs for churches and holy sites. Her streamlined, steel-and-light sculptures imply that old-time religion has fallen by the wayside. The Word has dropped from a cobalt blue/gray sky and landed in a heap on the floor inside the gallery's chapellike project room, its four, glowing fun-house letters vestiges of uplifting spiritual enlightenment from a bygone age. (Above the toppled letters, in rusty bolts and the ghostly trace of characters, hovers the dull evidence of a fallen marquee.) No coin-operated confessional offers instant absolution, but a Roadside Attraction jukebox spits out a bluegrassy "I Saw the Light" upon request; the song wickedly plays off the minimalist, fluorescent Ladder nearby. Fans and foes of capital punishment should get a charge out of Southern Comfort, a diabolical yet chic rocking-cum-electric chair sitting across from Somerville's This Land Is My Land. This slightly fetishistic steel-and-leather contraption is a standout in Giudici's strongest body of work to date.


Grace Slick: No hookah-smoking caterpillars here, but a couple of white rabbits do hop through the paintings, drawings, and prints by Grace Slick. While this Sunday afternoon portrait gallery of friends and fellow counterculture icons (Jerry, Jimi, Janis ...) by the acid-tongued former lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane isn't likely to rock the art world, it bristles with Slick wit while also revealing a gentler, more self-effacing side. The most poignant moment is a pensive self-portrait of the 61-year-old, white-haired hell-raiser checking her pulse.


Julio Morales: The a.o.v. gallery sent out fliers assuring neighbors that it hadn't opened a massage parlor. The red neon sign for Julio Morales' "Fuzzyland" alludes to an infamous nightclub in Tijuana that was a hotbed of "unnatural behavior" and gave rise to the artist's formative impressions and mixed messages concerning carnal knowledge. Purloined from Mexican public service announcements, the sketchy body parts (a torso or pair of hands) and ambiguous gestures (a figure lying on the ground) glint from a row of dimly backlit ballpoint pen drawings on fleshlike vellum (made still fuzzier by digitally tweaking and overlaying the same image).

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Harry Roche

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