Venus and Mars

Bill Havu has put together a wild amusement park ride of a show called Women & Allegory at his prestigious William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle. The exhibit, which lasts through the weekend, features a quartet of artists who deal with both feminist and feminine imagery. The work, according to Havu, is "humorous," though there's no denying that the paintings and sculptures have a disturbing aspect to them as well.

The main front room is mostly given over to the paintings and drawings of Erica Daborn. A few of these may be familiar to some people since they were included in an exhibit at the University of Denver last season, but most of them have never been shown around here before. Daborn's style is idiosyncratic. She employs simplifications of the human figure to create abstractions, but her cartoon-like approach to drawing, which lends a whimsical quality to these pictures, is unnervingly offset by the disturbing scenes she depicts.

Daborn was born in England and received her MFA at the Royal College of Art in London in 1972. So she had already established herself as a mature artist with impressive credentials before moving to California in 1987 to teach at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Most of her paintings are autobiographical, and she has recorded the culture shock of her move along with other aspects of her life, including her relationships with her daughter and mother. Let's just hope her actual experiences aren't as bad as she makes them look in her work.

"Reconstructive Surgery" is the title of a major oil-on-Masonite painting from 1989 that is hung facing the main entrance of the gallery. In this piece, Daborn depicts herself being remade for her new American life. A distorted female figure lays prone across the mid-section in the manner of a traditional painting of a reclining nude. But rather than being alluring, the figure is repellent. Many of her features have been exaggerated, and her body is lacerated, with parts having been removed with the help of surgeons armed with power tools. The woman's face is scarred and stitched, and her breasts have been cut off and reapplied, but her hair is rolled up in curlers and her eyes are adorned with makeup. The multiple meanings are fairly clear: The painting shows the oppression of women, from the subtle reference to historic art's reclining-nude tradition to a blatant critique of the contemporary cult of vanity.

Another of the large paintings is "Networking," a 1989 oil on Masonite that cruelly conveys a cocktail party -- or perhaps an art opening. Figures are lined up across the horizontal picture and, as in "Reconstructive Surgery," this arrangement refers to the traditional compositions seen in historic paintings. The figures, both male and female, are perched on sculpture stands; their faces are hidden behind tribal masks. A wire links the figures to one another but is connected only through their masks.

Daborn must have really hated California.

With the birth of her daughter in the early 1990s, however, Daborn began to lighten up. Sort of. On the back wall is the oil-on-canvas mural-like triptych called "Family," from 1994. At first sight the painting looks like an illustration in a children's book, with a giant chick and a large rabbit in the center panel. Then we notice that the chick has the legs of a woman (which is distressing and not funny) and the rabbit has a sinister sneer on its face.

There are also dozens of smaller, easel-sized works in the show, many only recently completed, as well as a smaller group of Daborn's drawings. Interestingly, the smaller paintings, though stylistically the same as the larger ones, are typically more simply composed. Daborn reduces the elements in her paintings according to size. In this way, the larger paintings are as dense as the smaller ones in terms of their compositions. The drawings are scaled-down versions of the larger pieces.

Among the smaller paintings are several standouts, including "Girl Knight," an oil on Masonite done earlier this year. In this piece, a gigantic sword-wielding woman (Daborn) confronts a castle occupied by a dragon. In the foreground, a girl in the form of a doll (Daborn's daughter) lies prone on the ground. Oddly, Daborn points the sword at her daughter, not at the dragon.

For all the grotesque misrepresentations of representational images in her work, Daborn's technique is meticulous, and her skill as a blender of color is remarkable, as is her ability to create a smooth, homogenous surface.

Scattered among the Daborns are a handful of sculptures by Kristy Soltesz. These genuinely bizarre works relate very well to the quirky Daborns.

Soltesz is a young Ohio artist who just last year earned her BFA at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The sculptures on display at Havu are from her recent "Marionettes in Environments" series, which includes, not unexpectedly, handmade marionettes.

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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

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