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Adventurous group show at Durham Arts Guild 

Hammer and the gods

click to enlarge "COC_The Statesman" (2006). Sewn and applied ribbons, lapel pins, buck shot and latex paint on canvas, 72 in. x 45 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DURHAM ARTS GUILD

Dave Alsobrooks, Klint Ericson, Lindsay Pichaske and Melissa Miller
Durham Arts Guild
Through May 9

It's agreeable to visit a gallery and notice that the law has been violated in the production of one of the paintings. It's right there on a wall in the CCB Gallery of the Durham Arts Guild: While graffiti artists regularly experience gleeful outlaw-hood in the wilds of the urban jungle, Dave Alsobrooks has managed to do the same in a gallery setting by incorporating bits of U.S. currency into his "COC_The Hammer" (2006), a 6-feet high mixed-media rendering of graft-monger (and one-time U.S. congressman) Tom Delay's goofy mug shot.

According to Title 18 Section 333 of the United States Code, it is unlawful to "mutilate, cut, deface, disfigure, or perforate, or unite or cement together" paper currency. Indeed, Alsobrooks has certainly made the money "unfit to be reissued" by plastering it into his painting. Let's hope he isn't fined "$100 or imprisoned not more than six months, or both."

At issue here is the destruction of Federal Reserve instruments, not freedom of speech—it's perfectly legal for Alsobrooks to desecrate the image of the dollar, but it is a violation to destroy an actual note. In another test of art and free speech, a local musician said from the bandstand of a dive bar, "We're gonna shoot that motherfucker," in reference to George W. Bush. Conceivably, this performer also could be prosecuted for threatening the U.S. president. But in this instance, the violation involves actual speech and could plausibly be defended on the grounds that he wasn't making an actual threat, but performing theater. Despite the legal variants of these hypothetical cases, it's probably accurate to say that the rocker and Alsobrooks are motivated by a similar desire to enact at least petty rebellions against a regime that lacks legitimacy.

The title of Alsobrooks' exhibit, which is part of the Durham Arts Guild's current offerings, is Culture of Corruption, and the title says it all. On large panels, each 72 inches x 45 inches, Alsobrooks takes broad swipes at the multi-headed hydra that is the Bush administration. Each crony is given unique treatment to accompany his or her rap sheet. Among the most successful are "COC_The Advocate" (2006), a stark white-on-black Alberto Gonzalez doodle that shows the discredited former attorney general lacking the murky tonalities he handily conjured to defend the practice of torture, and "COC_The Protector" (2006), a floodwater-infused portrait of Michael Chertoff that is positively creepy. Appropriately, the portrait of Bush himself is slight, minimalist and hardly there.

While it's obvious artists like Alsobrooks (as well as much of the sentient country) are furious about the failures and flat-out criminalities of the Bush/ Cheney gang, Congress is evidently preoccupied with what they perceive to be political expediency. If the latter were a little more like the former, we'd likely be seeing more than just Scooter Libby's indictment coming down the pike—certainly heads need to roll if a façade of legitimacy is to once again be erected in Washington. But frankly (and sadly) we're more likely to see Alsobrooks in court for shredding a few dollar bills than Dick Cheney, a man who has shredded the Constitution.

Although Alsobrooks' work is the most politically-charged, attention-getting work currently on view at Durham Arts Guild, it's worth leaving his partisan zone to check out the three other artists inhabiting the CCB Gallery: Klint Ericson, Melissa Miller and Lindsay Pichaske.

Pichaske's ceramics are compelling macabre, ghoulish creations that somehow recall both H.R. Giger and Charles Addams. All of her humanoids are bald; perhaps it's too easy to imagine them as riffs on Uncle Fester, even as they protrude from sacs of grotesque tissue. Her tiniest works—the ones featuring mutated barnyard fauna—are most interesting; get close to see the detail.

Miller's pastoral acrylics don't break any new ground, but they do sustain a certain Southern ambiance. Her muted, soft-focus studies of rural landscapes emerge hazily, as do the details of a backwoods drive on a late summer evening. Although no individual work is especially memorable, the whole of the experience will linger with some viewers.

click to enlarge "In no particular order ..." (2003-05). Acrylic on canvas, 78 in. x 96 in. x 2 1/2 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DURHAM ARTS GUILD

Ericson offers a much more exciting romp in his space. His folksy creations incorporate both acrylic paint and mixed media—a sign on the exhibit notes that the artist encourages visitors to touch the objects, and such interaction is necessary to examine all of his paintings. The masterwork on display here is called "It was in a bar called The Four Rivers, on the night of October 5th, that we said our first goodbyes" (2004-2007), a largish multi-paneled painting that oozes a stillness of static emotion. A bar scene seen from various perspectives, "It was in a bar ..." functions as a bullet-time updating of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (1942).

"It was in a bar ..."'s lonesome realism is a departure from "In no particular order: Manasseh, Gad, Reuben, Naphtali, Dan, Simeon, Ephraim, Tamar, Benjamin, Judah, Asher, Zebulun, Cornelius, Issachar, Levi," (2003-2005), the other large Ericson painting in the exhibit. Here the work ventures into the surreal and satirical: A grouping of contemporarily dressed Americans effectively become sunflower stalks with steams projecting out of their upturned mouths. It's as if they have been crucified on totems of optimism. Viewers with cynical temperaments are apt to conclude that the artist is suggesting the reason hope springs eternal is because the flowerpot is full of naive optimism. And isn't that a thought for the present election season?

Works by Dave Alsobrooks, Klint Ericson, Lindsay Pichaske and Melissa Miller are on display at the Durham Arts Guild through May 9. Call the Durham Arts Guild at 560-2713 for more information.

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