The High and Low Of the Art Scene

It would look great in a card shop, no question:
It would look great in a card shop, no question: "The Controller," by Shag (a.k.a. Josh Agle), part of the unabashedly lowbrow show at Hemphill. (Hemphill Fine Arts)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chances are, you've seen the works in "Tug of War" before. Maybe not these exact pictures but something very, very similar. Perhaps when you stopped to watch your child's favorite cartoon, or when you bought last year's Christmas cards. You'll recognize these signature styles because the 22 artists in this group show at Hemphill Fine Arts make a living illustrating the stuff we buy and watch. What the works in "Tug of War" have in common is commodification.

Gary Basemangets regular commissions for New Yorker covers and draws the squirmy, antennaed brain and cuddly characters of the board game Cranium. Ana Bagayan makes illustrations of rock stars such as Beck -- embraced by giant, sloe-eyed rabbits -- for Spin. Two artists even eked out deals with Disney: Shag (a.k.a. Josh Agle) designed aloha shirts, tiki mugs, handbags and card sets for the 40th anniversary of Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room; Baseman (lucky dude!) worked on ABC/Disney's animated TV series "Teacher's Pet."

With this surfeit of licensing deals, these people can't even pretend to suffer for their art.

So here's a show of artists who make a living doing what we'd call commodity art. They're showing work that looks a lot like greeting card illustrations and children's book covers and they're selling it for up to $18,000 a pop. Because even their oil paintings look so much like illustrations, comics and cartoons, they label their style lowbrow. By showing in galleries and otherwise carrying on like highbrow artists, they are fulfilling their mission of undermining our notions of "high" art.

But in this outing at least, these artists don't undermine so much as underwhelm. The show reads like a hodgepodge of illustrative art for cards, science-fiction novels or anime. As a whole, "Tug of War" doesn't work very hard to make a case for these works being taken seriously -- and by "seriously," I mean art that endeavors to be something more than merely cute. The kind of art that actually belongs in a gallery.

It's not that there isn't a case to be made. I've seen cogently argued shows, like the formidable "Comics on the Verge" at Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art back in 2004, convincing me that comic- and illustration-based artists such as Raymond Pettibon and R. Crumb were serious practitioners operating outside oil-on-canvas norms. But the kind of convincing that that show did so successfully required more effort than simply hanging pictures on walls.

Here at Hemphill, curator Annie Adjchavanich -- erstwhile Washington resident and now director of Billy Shire Fine Arts in Culver City, Calif., itself a lowbrow bastion -- hasn't made the same impact. I'm not convinced that Baseman's saucer-eyed figures, fanged but cute as buttons, deserve my gallery time rather than my TV time. Or why Shag's 1950s-era hepcats don't belong at the card shop. My guess is that these artists and their curator don't think a case needs to be made for this work -- that high/low distinctions were blurred for most of the 20th century and there's no need to go there. In this case, I disagree.

The only small-scale argument for this work's validity lies in a few of the pictures' curious frames. Several are inches thick and as flourished as cake icing. Such self-consciously baroque surrounds often signal art-historical heft. Here they surround work destined to decorate a sci-fi novel -- ironically, of course. But awkwardly, too.

Ultimately, these works come off as uncomfortable with themselves. The framing announces a need to make a point, ironic as that point may be. That this show hangs at Hemphill, surely Washington's least ironic gallery and probably its toniest, strikes me as another odd choice. Are these works trying to undermine the "high" art gallery system, or join it?

Beatriz Ezban

Mexican-born painter Beatriz Ezban shows large-scale paintings and drawings in a show about political and psychological boundaries. The cohesive group of works came out of the artist's Yaddo residency last year.

As a painter, Ezban blurs abstraction and figuration in the project. For the most part, she makes figures as silhouettes, devoid of individual characteristics. Hints of totalitarianism and a sense of conspiracy pervade these anonymous figures.

Ezban works her canvases to rough and uneven surfaces. She lays paint and wax down thick and then spreads it around with a palette knife. The effect is weathered and rough and signals the dark import of her subject. By contrast, Ezban's drawings are more delicate endeavors in silver enamel paint on Mylar. They allude obliquely to scarification, fencing or railroad tracks.

The artist's methods work well for her subject: the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexican border, as well as that boundary's transgressors and enforcers. Her pictures touch on power relations and politics, calling to mind a number of events, the Cold War and the Holocaust among them. In two particularly arresting canvases, figures are shown on their hands and knees and subject to flashlight beams or perched precariously on boxes. Both pictures seem direct descendants of the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Ezban's generalizedfigures sidestep identifying details such as uniforms or skin color. But her implications and indictments come pretty strong. We all know that Americans hold the flashlights when Mexicans are on their knees.

Tug of War, Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-234-5601, through April 7.

Beatriz Ezban: Unified Field/The Border Project, Cultural Institute of Mexico, 2829 16th St. NW, Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-728-1624, through April 30.

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