Art review: ‘Mason Saltarrelli: Golden Cacti’ at Randall Scott Projects

February 21, 2013

There are no cacti, golden or otherwise, in “Golden Cacti,” the inaugural exhibition of the Randall Scott Projects in its new permanent home in the heart of the H Street arts and entertainment district.

The title of the show, which features 14 abstract works on paper by Brooklyn-based artist Mason Saltarrelli, is a red herring, delivering a suggestion of hipster cool more than actual content. Taken poetically, it hints at something beautiful but prickly.

It is not the only red herring in the show.

“My work is primarily narrative,” the 33-year-old artist writes in his exhibition statement. Saltarrelli goes on to say that his personal iconography includes Hopi Kachina dolls and Catholic saints. Good luck finding any.

After much looking, I was able to convince myself that I saw the silhouette of the Virgin Mary in Saltarrelli’s “Untitled Painting no. 58.” But like Elvis’s face on a tortilla, who really knows? That piece also includes the name Ronnie, cryptically scribbled in pencil at the bottom, and then just as cryptically erased, or whited out.

There’s a feeling that you’re looking at the Shroud of Turin with a lot of Saltarrelli’s pictures. Like that cloth, which is said to bear the faint image of a man — possibly Jesus — on its ancient linen fibers, the works here appear sweat-stained, with ghostly images sometimes resolving into recognizable shapes, and sometimes not.

The artist typically paints on the ground, often outdoors, allowing his pictures, quite literally, to weather, as well as to take on the texture of whatever surface on which he is working, in addition to his footprints.

Additional marks — made by pencil, paint, ink and sometimes coffee — come in and out of focus. “Untitled Painting no. 80” contains a crucifix and identifiable writing; “Untitled Painting no. 82” says “white moth.” If you squint, you can just make out a skull in “Untitled Painting no. 78.” The empty eye sockets are defined by bleeding pools of blue ink. At the bottom, look for the letters “POW-MIA,” a legend that pops up again in “Untitled Painting no. 83.”

If there’s a narrative here, it’s a mumbled one — a story heard indistinctly, as if from another room, with critical details lost or left out. As I walked through the show, I had the same feeling that I get when I first open a jigsaw puzzle box and dump the pieces on the table: thrill mixed with a little bit of panic.

How you respond — with a quickening of the senses or a sense of impatience and frustration — depends on your comfort with the state of unknowing. There’s a deep, palpable mystery to Saltarrelli’s art that rewards close and patient looking, but often only with more mystery.

The other thought I had as I wandered through “Golden Cacti” was that these pictures reminded me of cave paintings. In that context, I thought, they do reveal narratives of a sort. They may not be legible in the literal sense, but they are documents. Not of a series of events — tales of the hunt — but of their own mysterious making.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORK

The marks in Mason Saltarrelli’s paintings range from cryptic to indecipherable. Even the occasional fragments of stray text — “white moth,” “POW-MIA,” “Ronnie,” “ana” — seem like, and may well be, allusions to random graffiti seen by the artist. But one set of marks has a strangely specific and slightly ghoulish provenance.

Small, doodle-like scribbles that resemble rows of human teeth appear in at least three of the artist’s works. (“Untitled Painting no. 81” features a large, painted version of the same cartoonish shape.) In fact, they are teeth, an allusion to the human body and mortality — underscored by the central, skull-like form in “Untitled Painting no. 78” — that lends the show a somber, sepulchral tone.

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Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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