Dream or Nightmare?

Four artists take us to a "World" of mystery and violence

The title of a provocative new group show at the Richmond Art Center – "It's a Sad, Beautiful World" – comes from a line delivered by an Italian tourist to Tom Waits in Jim Jarmusch's cult film classic Down by Law. And the four emergent Bay Area artists in the exhibit would be right at home in Jarmusch's shadowy New Orleans alleys and gloomy bayou landscapes. Though they work in distinct genres and media, Jonn Herschend, Martha Sue Harris, Eli Rowe, and Per Frykdahl share a common obsession with imaginary places. The display is at once gritty, whimsical, surreal, and disorienting.

Herschend takes a page from Angela Carter's book The Bloody Chamber, specifically her neo-Gothic, overtly sexualized retelling of the Grimm Brothers' "Little Red Riding Hood." Like Carter, Herschend recasts the story with a twist: The wily, headstrong girl chooses to run off with and then abandon the wolf. The artist portrays his narrative in 11 canvases, each set into the background of a large landscape mural that occupies two walls of the gallery corner. The walls envelop the viewer like the two halves of an open book, with the canvases acting as chapters in Herschend's perverse folk tale.

The mural provides a sparse backdrop for the densely composed paintings. It depicts a spacious terrain of rolling hills, with Herschend's signature ice cream cone trees alternating with barren, clawlike trunks and star-shaped stumps (some painted, others sketched in pencil), seen from an aerial perspective. This setting, reminiscent of the work of American muralist Thomas Hart Benton, presents a wasteland in which the remnants of a small town are inundated by a flood. A mysterious rabbit floats on a log past funky derelict hotels, a gypsy caravan, fences, half-submerged boots, and railroad tracks that end abruptly. These same elements reappear in the 11 acrylic canvases, some seeming to hang from the mural's trees or to extend a branch or figure from the mural. The ensemble underscores Herschend's dreamscape atmosphere – perfect for a story whose characters and plot are full of enigmas.

From Per Frykdahl's astonishing comic strip 
account of the murder of Emmett Till.
From Per Frykdahl's astonishing comic strip account of the murder of Emmett Till.

In The Way I Was Told It Would Be, for example, a pubescent Red Riding Hood straight out of Balthus reclines dreamily on a hilltop next to an ashtray with a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke; the big bad wolf-man floats above her, dressed in overalls, his arms outstretched. Two other figures repeat his floating-dead-guy pose – one above the trees, another lying on a distant knoll. Someone here is having an out-of-body experience. In successive episodes, foreboding and tension haunt the images. As the relationship of girl and wolf plays out, multiple characters observe it voyeuristically: shadowy figures in darkened hotel room windows; a rabbit (drawn to resemble an aljibe, the fantastically colored spirit creatures of Mexican folk art); and a Mr. Magoo-like huntsman. In the most erotic of these scenes, the rabbit observes the two lovers from a rooftop as they screw in a canopied houseboat, itself tethered to a tree at the precipice of a steep waterfall cascading over penciled buildings topped with a billboard that reads "FUN." Herschend's magical realism is intensified by his rich earth tones and shifting visual perspectives, not only within each canvas but in the ensemble as a whole. His epic reimagining of the tale is an artistic tour de force, both in technique and substance.

Martha Sue Harris and Eli Rowe both evoke magical worlds of the imagination, the former in mixed media and fabric art and the latter through a group of interconnected oil and watercolor landscapes. In a series called "Doll Garden," Harris creates what she calls a "monster flower family" of fabric sculptures and miniature acrylics on Masonite tiles – a fantastical taxonomy of playful, bulbous creatures, complete with Latin names for genus and species, inspired by Edward Lear's Nonsense Botany. Her stuffed, multiheaded dolls resemble ginger plants and tubers, some with cacti for ears. Others include a treelike mermaid (Arbusculus Diktynna), a horned seal (Phoca Corneus), and a delightful family of three-armed Hare Twins (Lepus Binatus) sprouting like potatoes in a jar. Their attached offspring are a pair of one-eyed twins whose stitched-on, black-faced grins come straight out of vaudeville. In a separate installation, their seeds, nuts, and fruits (fashioned of Sculpey and painted with acrylic) rest under a bell jar. Harris' work, the most whimsical of the four artists', offers an Addams Family hothouse of evolution gone potty.

Rowe frames his untitled oil paintings and watercolors together to suggest a Renaissance altar. They include eight topographic California land- and seascapes in two bands below a large triptych of oils depicting a mountain and garden full of tide-pool creatures, succulent plants, and sea horses. Three young men, one a skateboarder with kneepads, contemplate the cratered surfaces and ridges that suggest a gigantic brain. Above them, the heads of cherubs and another head resembling Diego Rivera float over the scene, their Medusa hair flowing with dragons and strange birds. Each head and landscape feature is meticulously outlined in fine pen detail. Rowe's baroque renderings evoke a psychedelic world of Technicolor, visionary landscapes.

For gravitas and edginess, the outsider art of Per Frykdahl stands out; his is the most visceral work in the show. Frykdahl – whom the curators describe as schizophrenic and largely self-taught – has won awards for his CD covers for local avant-garde rock bands Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Idiot Flesh, included here (one of them borrows the image of an ass reading a book from Goya's Los Caprichos). His cartoon imagery draws on '30s movie posters, carnival peep shows, honky-tonk bars, and Berlin cabarets. "It's a Sad, Beautiful World" is his first gallery exhibit, and it includes excerpts from his astonishing comic strip account of the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago-born African-American killed in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi.

Frykdahl's panels open with a carnival barker intro: "See a Teenager Break the Code of the South. Shocking. Repulsive. TRUE." His text and images brilliantly encapsulate and lend context to Till's murder, the brutality of which galvanized the civil rights movement. Frykdahl begins with references to what white supremacists called "Black Monday" (May 17, 1954), when the Supreme Court delivered its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision ending "separate but equal" schooling. Another panel shows a Klansman (one of Till's murderers) taking his sons to see the '50s horror film Creature From the Black Lagoon. This scene cleverly foreshadows the current of distorted sexual fear in the murder through the image of a helpless, hysterical blonde abducted by a dark monster whose face eerily resembles the bludgeoned head of Till. The final panel, depicting the smug expressions of the all-white jury after delivering its "not guilty" verdict (the murderers subsequently confessed their crime in a celebrated Lookmagazine interview), is a chilling study in the portraiture of hatred.

Founded in the mid-1930s as a WPA-funded project, the RAC is one of the state's oldest community art centers. For seven decades, it has sponsored shows of cutting-edge contemporaries, including Jasper Johns in his Northern California debut and a host of conceptual artists in the 1970s. "It's a Sad, Beautiful World" continues the center's vital, ongoing commitment to innovative and extraordinary Bay Area artists. The show is brilliantly curated, as enchanting as it is disturbing.

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