Current exhibits at Spark and Pirate: a contemporary art oasis each feature art that represents the human body--though you might not know it from simply looking.

In Spark's front gallery, Susan Koenig shows both works on paper and works made out of paper. Her still-life drawings, most combining charcoal and pastels, are smudgy and creamy. Disconnected body parts, often fingers and ears, are paired with geometric forms--the softness of the body against the hardness of the world. Although the elements that make up the drawings are readily identifiable, the results are highly abstract. This is particularly true for the three works made of paper, in which Koenig sliced laser-print reproductions of the same drawings and wove them into forms that suggest a basket, a vase and a drum.

Spark's back room offers an uneven display of Susan Smolinski's oil paintings. Although these, too, fall within the abstract realm, they are dominated by combinations of easy-to-read representations--too many of them, sometimes. "Stigmata," for example, incorporates an oil painting with such found objects as dried pomegranates and sand dollars; there's so much going on that the piece lacks continuity.

But when it all comes together for Smolinski, the results are compelling. The luminous "Examination," a skillful oil on board, depicts an arm with a puncture wound to the wrist--an unmistakable reference to the crucified Christ. "Judith," a large, crisply painted oil, looks like a portrait of a female saint, but the background suggests a flaming landscape. This relationship between suffering and transcendence--the theme of all Catholic art--underlies most of Smolinski's paintings displayed at Spark.

Over at Pirate, longtime co-op member Alan Kempkes has also been thinking about the spiritual associations of the body. Kempkes's "Idea" features all-new pieces, hybrids of paintings and sculptures that differ appreciably from his well-known wall-hung constructions. Nonetheless, the new work is clearly an outgrowth of the older material.

"Idea" is essentially an installation. Strikingly similar individual works lean against the walls of Pirate's main room at evenly spaced intervals; each element consists of a square of plywood expressively attached to an oversized fence picket by large nails. The pickets, which have been whitewashed, vaguely recall a backyard fence. The plywood squares are painted with exaggerated, primarily black-and-white details of body parts--often breasts--that respond to the figure drawings Kempkes did as part of his artist's training when he worked directly from nude, typically female, models. Kempkes has crudely folded those original drawings, then attached them to the paintings with colored thumbtacks in patterns that spell out such nonprofane, four-letter words as "unit" and "tack."

Those words suggest connected things or things that connect--just as "Idea" successfully connects with the viewer, conveying a sense of domestic tranquility. That's right--vanguard art using the nude and four-letter words to impart Kempkes's traditional values of "love, marriage and the family." (Take that, Jesse Helms.)

This home-sweet-home theme carries over to a companion exhibit of birdhouses in Pirate Alley. The birdhouses, hung from the ceiling in a grid arrangement, are a collaborative effort: Kempkes built them with his four-year-old son (a relative newcomer to the alternative scene), who enthusiastically decorated them--and himself--with paint.

The human body is not often used as a canvas for art. As a subject, though, it's had appeal since the days of the cave painters. And as these two fascinating alternative-space exhibits demonstrate, the venerable old topic continues to inspire completely contemporary art.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia