When artists become parents, they must figure out how the two roles relate. While some build a family schedule that strictly separates their practice from parenting, others, by choice or necessity, bring their children into their art, passing on skills and sensibilities—or even collaborating. Two current shows in the Triangle offer fascinating looks into the parent-child artist dynamic.
Working out of her home in Chapel Hill, Carrie Alter has widely shown her paintings, drawings and photography. When her 9-year-old son, Max McMichaels, asked to come into the studio with her, she reminded him that it was a workspace. He understood, and started making fantastic drawings based on his dreams and imagination as well as on the eccentric objects in Alter's studio—taxidermy, animal teeth, wigs, vintage toys and striped socks.
Alter gave her son blank canvases to draw on, thinking she would later gesso over them. But the drawings were so interesting that she asked him to collaborate—she would turn his drawings into paintings, manipulating the figures in the process. Would he be OK with that? Yes, he would.
This casual collaboration has become the phantasmagorical exhibit CROSSING THE LINES at Artspace, which includes 14 paintings, two drawings and two books, one of which is a coloring book of McMichaels' original drawings. Hardly refrigerator-door fare, the chimerical inhabitants of his weird, placeless tableaux find corporeality in Alter's shifty contours and unsettling coloration.
McMichaels' illustrative sensibility originates more from the dark, surreal stills of picture books than from cinematic graphic novels or video games. Warped animalistic figures pose against bright monochromatic backgrounds, as if waiting for a line of storytelling beneath them. McMichaels primarily draws distorted bodies with oversize heads and distended limbs, intuiting Salvador Dalí's soft, floppy forms and parroting Alter's figuration.
Only a few works indicate place. In "Crime 'Seen,'" a multi-breasted bank robber on the run trails coins from a bag. "The Circus" portrays tortured acrobats performing above a ring of ambivalent clowns. They're like unfinished bedtime stories continuing in dreams.
There are a lot of holes and orifices. A hook-handed thing with oblong spider legs pisses down a sewer grate. An egg-shaped creature punctures a target on the ground with its peg leg. A figure in Alter's signature red-striped socks, with an upside down deer head for a body, holds a violin over a hole marked with two signs: "Trash" and "Poop."
Though unnerving at times, McMichaels' figures are never terrifying, expressing the transformative potential of bodies rather than an inner psychodynamic. The arms of the protagonist of "She Holds the Moon" terminate in single fingers, and her legs are mere spiral flourishes. But she looks out calmly with large blue eyes, not suffering. Even the figures Alter has given a kind of self-awareness seem blissfully ignorant of what unconventional beings they are.
While Alter and McMichaels have charted fantastic ground together, Dan and Iris Gottlieb show a hereditary concern with representation and perception, using different media and methods, in simultaneous shows at Craven Allen Gallery. Dan is the director of planning at the North Carolina Museum of Art, while Iris, who lives in the Bay Area, is a professional illustrator and data visualization specialist.
Dan's MOVING PICTURES/FIGURE AND FOREST combines photography and painting in blurred images of trees and people, reclaiming subjectivity from the inanimate camera eye. He catches the moment of thinking "I should take a picture," rather than the later moment delayed by the focusing and framing. He starts with a photograph reverse-printed on acrylic. Then he paints over the image, sanding it to a finish so immaculate it's hard to believe painting was involved. The result looks purely photographic, albeit with some post-production.
Through physical texture instead of Photoshop, the work registers the blur not of the unfocused lens or algorithmic filter but of the sharp eye in the turning head, glimpsing visual components in a gestalt. Perception isn't about taking a picture and then seeing what one captured. Looking and interpreting are simultaneous, which Dan's work comprehends.
His street photography underlines this point. "Stoned Man on a Hazy Day, New York City, 2015" is taken from behind the man, who walks up a busy sidewalk. His black outline is warped against a sun-blasted sky. A backdrop of pedestrians and cars seems to part as the he steps into it. Dan's images of trees are more painterly than his street scenes. Indian teak and Wyoming pines nearly become abstract—taut vertical swipes. But their bark looks so much like living skin that clusters of trees become a silent crowd peering out of the image.
Iris' 29 pen-and-ink drawings in ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MANDIBLE couldn't look more different from her father's work, but they display the same impulse toward singular attention and intelligence. Mostly in black ink, they range from studies of everyday objects to cultural critiques to idiosyncratic informational maps.
Iris' freehand skill is understated but breathtaking. Her lines can be almost impossibly minute yet absolutely precise. Her hand is never tentative, but somehow the work lacks the anxiety often coded into precision. Instead, humor and analysis come through.
One of Iris' modes is the frank depiction of ubiquitous objects. She offers 12 empty cigarette packs in various states of unfolding, but it's a study in accurate form rather than a commentary on waste. Giving equally detailed attention to potted cacti and hands holding phones, it's as if she could catalog the world. She often annotates images with minute text and arrows to show relationships and wry categorical thinking. A wadded sock is "formerly white," a ketchup packet is "formerly tomato," but an untouched sandwich is "still a sandwich."
The diagrammatic reaches its highest level in object maps of causality and time. One depicts a sprig of weeds and wildflowers with a series of time stamps noting the exact occurrences of sirens passing, dogs barking and, finally, the mowing of the weeds. Another shows a network of objects connected by consumption: The dryer eats the sock; the dog eats the sticks; mistakes eat the pencil eraser and the paper eats the point.
The Gottliebs compress thought and vision in their compositions, while Alter elaborates upon McMichaels' imaginative vision. Both shows revel in the intimate complexity of artistic inheritance when it's genetic as well as figurative.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Scrawl in the family"