Photographs by Alicia Wilkinson
Declaring the emergent can be a bold thing. You stand as a tastemaker, directing others to pay attention to what you deem worthy. And this is the season for just such declarations. Down at the Tacoma Art Museum, they’re presenting their Northwest Biennial and just up the hill, at the Fulcrum Gallery, owner Oliver Doriss is sharing his vision of the future of visual art in Tacoma.
On January 26th, Doriss premiered his newest exhibition, Dawn of 2012 (Emerging Artists of 2012) featuring six young Tacoma artists. Each featured artist displays a distinctive aesthetic yet Doriss manages to share their wildly varying points of view in a cohesive expression of what’s new and worth our attention.
The six featured Tacoma artists — Julian Peña, Kelsi Finney, Gabriel Brown, Kirsten Marie Pisto, Meghan Mitchell, and Branden Urban — are of varying levels of expertise, ability, and self-assurance but the unifying elements are both exciting and inspiring. All work with vivid curiosity, fearlessness, and a commitment to both internal and external exploration. They create in order to uncover something more, something new, to challenge them.
Although each artist created works that endeared their efforts to me, two quietly rose to the top of the heap. Meghan Mitchell and Gabriel Brown both stood out as not only talented and creative, but also each display a quiet mastery and vision just a bit ahead of their exhibited peers.
Gabriel Brown’s work is the only large-scale installation in Dawn of 2012 and serves as a greeting to the exhibition. Installed just to the right of the entrance, Floating Island Estates is a brightly colored suspended suburb, a series of tiny cardboard houses built from cast-off boxes of various products, each trapped on their own little astro-turfed island.
Initially a whimsical and borderline cute work, closer examination reveals that the status and entitlement gained from the imagined inhabitants living in such an extravagant estate comes at a cost: a sense of isolation, stasis, and artifice permeate as the inhabitants of these house-islands exist with no hope of escaping the literal consumer trappings of their homes, getting off their islands, or connecting with their neighbors. These estates are either traps or the ultimate in exclusivity: they’re completely inaccessible.
It’s an old idea, to challenge and criticize the sprawl and superficiality of suburbs through constructions made of our garbage, but from the title to its vertical installation, this spatially rearranged suburb expresses these issues in a new way, infusing cliched critiques with a fresh point of view.
Floating Island Estates is another evolution of Brown’s Great Tasting Goodness series which encompasses his cardboard house constructions and their various installations. It was a treat to see his work move through a new expression after having seen the Great Tasting Goodness houses in his Spring 2011 installation in the Woolworth Windows. Brown’s playful yet pointed criticism not only of society’s suburban choices but also of our waste continues to find new, challenging means of expression and I can’t wait to see where he goes next.
Meghan Mitchell’s featured works are small, elusive illustrations of hands and tangled ribbon executed in graphite, watercolor, and, in one piece, screen printing technique. But these works immediately evoke so much more than their subjects.
Initially the small size and subtle coloring of Mitchell’s drawings encourage intimacy and, as the viewer leans in, they provoke questions about origin, visibility, connection, and impenetrability; inviting connection but denying lucidity. These hands are more gesture than object, the ribbons more generative than inert. We cannot know whose hands these are, we cannot know who tangled these ribbons and what they hide, but regardless, the works’ deft delicacy allows the imagination to spin out infinite symbolic possibilities.
I seek out and love works that motivate questions, provide no answers, but are smart enough to not dead-end a viewer’s imagination, instead inspiring endless, satisfying speculation. This concoction occurs only rarely in figurative work when the right ingredients are in accord: creativity, mastery, and a comprehension of what can be communicated through symbols.
Mitchell is a canny, talented artist with a captivating enigmatic point of view, inspiring me to seek out more of her work.
The remaining four featured artists all express significant potential for maturation in their works. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are the four youngest artists.
Branden Urban, the youngest artist represented, is a recent Tacoma School of the Arts graduate and his work embraces street art and graffiti with enthusiasm, though if not entirely with full proficiency. The displayed works are primarily executed in aerosol-applied enamel, and cursorily explore pop culture and spirituality. The one sculptural work, a clock made of empty spray paint cans, showed the most raw promise.
Julian Peña struck me as the most fearless of the artists. In the gallery’s front room you are immediately confronted by his three-paneled, mural-sized painting filled with graffiti and anime-inspired monsters, buddhas, warriors, and fantastical animals. Like Urban, themes of pop culture and spirituality infuse every work, but in Peña’s case the exploration is headier, more psychedelic, more aggressive, and significantly zanier. In each piece his ability fluxuates with some elements rendered impeccably and others vacillating between slapdash and amateur, but through it all an overt and boisterous spirit of pluck, decadence, virility, and fantasy pervade.
Kelsi Finney shares delicate, intricate sensibilities with Meghan Mitchell but delivers her visions in surrealistic pastiche. Finney’s dreamlike, muted compositions reconfigure elements of floral and fauna into fay portraits and narrative explorations with incredible skill and detail. However, the result, although pretty and promising, is essentially trendy (think Fleet Foxes album cover) instead of timeless.
Kirsten Marie Pisto, like Urban, also displayed both two dimensional and one sculptural work, and again, the sculptural piece held the most potential. Although capable in painting with acrylics, her final pieces found their most success when they lean toward expressionism rather than realism as her ability to expertly render a subject is still developing.
Pisto had one of the most commanding understandings of palette in the exhibition, confidently mixing high contrasting black and white with muted pastels to convey an overall mood of the chaotic pastoral. Her assembled sculpture, delightfully titled This is a poor delicate replica of the things that start up in me in the middle of the night, but girl, I know you’ll use that imagination. Or rainbow bridge to Wolfy’s den is the most apt title in the entire show. If you can extrapolate and do as Pisto recommends – use that imagination – what comes to mind is nearly exactly what she describes. I look forward to seeing more of her assemblage integrated with her painting skills.
All together, this show expertly reflects the distinct journey of each of the artists’ creative development, proudly shares the undeniable talent of our city’s emerging artists, and also confirms that the already much-lauded Fulcrum Gallery is a true and reliable tastemaker. The Dawn of 1012 surely promises a glowing morning and I expect continuing great things from not only these artists but also from the Fulcrum Gallery.