“Things Imagined” Offers A Softer, Sinister Side of the Surreal

Posted on February 21, 2018, 9:00 am
10 mins


The four artists featured at Harris/Harvey Gallery’s group exhibition, Things Imagined, don’t overlap much conceptually or stylistically. That they all have surreal and symbolic subject matter isn’t enough to hold a show together cogently. What makes these paintings and works on paper fit together so well is the brooding mood that each sets. Sometimes, things just feel amiss. Other times, we are peering into a certain dream. And though Things Imagined is dreamy, indeed, it isn’t too subdued or monotonous. In fact, the variety keeps one alert.

As we look forward to less dreary months ahead, I recommend seeing this phantasmagoria before the show ends on February 24. Here’s a taste of what you can aspect from this curious quartet.

Mark Butler Goes to the Circus

Most of us are shedding no tears as the animal circus becomes a thing of the past. Its cruelty is well-documented, after all. When we speak of a “circus” now, it is more generally in metaphoric terms. A circus is a place of hyperactivity, untethered from reality, one that entertains because it seems to defy the natural order. The circus is a spectacle that lies at the intersection of total artifice and barbarism. We have no shortage of those.

In another setting, the dim, blurred drawings and paintings of Mark Butler might seem to be eulogizing the big top of old. However, seeing these works in Things Imagined allows one to pick up on the circus’ intrinsic surrealism. Rather than romanticizing it, Butler extends its surreal aspects by paring his compositions in ways that also feel unnatural. Despite knowing all the tropes and tightropes of the circus, the viewer is left mentally suspended, guessing at what is happening…let alone what happens next.

"Foray" by Mark Butler. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

“Foray” by Mark Butler. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

Royal Nebeker Plays Hide and Seek

At first, you may not notice the wrappers, bits of paper, stamps and other litter that gets worked into Royal Nebeker’s paintings. Nebeker (who passed away in 2014) chose his pigments to make these things less obtrusive, and they tend to disappear in his painterly brushwork while you focus on the obscure figures that populate his scenes.

In the gorgeous and grand “Marbles at Twilight” (the largest work in the show), he inlaid an entire Popsicle ad from the back of a comic book. It becomes part of the nondescript, industrial scenery. A flagpole rises along its left edge. (We only know that’s what this line is because a scrap of a fluttering American flag peeks from the edge of the canvas above.) At base, a faintly painted sentence: “At that magic quarter hour, if you lose marbles, you lose just marbles. – J.D. Salinger”

The source, Salinger’s novella Seymour: An Introduction, no doubt spoke to Nebeker. The story’s isolated narrator, Buddy, follows a stream of consciousness through time, touching on Eastern philosophy and poetry. Nebeker’s work drew from these sources, among others. These lofty philosophical and literary references might seem at odds with the collaged debris he meshed with his paints, but that’s a matter of perspective. These otherwise worthless tokens of his travels add a personal, humble touch to subjects that would otherwise be remote, potentially humorless. Because, in spite of the earnestness of Nebeker’s work and the time he invested in rendering his peculiar visions, the material “value” of an artwork is as unfixed as its meaning. Any given artwork may not be worth the purchase price to a viewer…but Nebeker’s are absolutely worth a look.

"Marbles at Twilight" by Royal Nebeker. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

“Marbles at Twilight” by Royal Nebeker. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

John Lysak Keeps One Unsettled

Things just are not quite right in John Lysak’s works, even when the subject matter could be otherwise serene or banal. The men who look directly out at you from “Rescue Dog” and “Sailing Away” might appear innocuous at a glance, but things are complicated by the way they guardedly hold another figure. In the former, it’s the eponymous dog. In the latter, it’s a young woman. Both dog and woman seem more resigned to the situation than comfortable in it. Against their dark backgrounds, these scenes make one feel witness to a crime in progress.

In “Woman Killing a Sleeping Man,” the crime becomes more overt, and yet strangely feels less menacing for that reason. Impending doom is also made manifest in the red-robed Grim Reaper upon a pale horse in “Approaching Rider.” The mostly submerged, nixie-like “Woman in the Waves” feels no less ominous.

Even in the more serene “On the Mudflats,” one can’t get too comfy. Proportion is so distorted that the prone, nude figure at center could be human scale or gargantuan, depending on where you focus your attention. It’s the sort of dreamscape that can be read countless ways, but may conjure a very specific meaning to a particular viewer. The figure seems to be in a reverie, but determined to stay awake. Given the neighbors, this is probably prudent.

"Approaching Rider" by John Lysak. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

“Approaching Rider” by John Lysak. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

Thomas Wood Loves the Unnatural World

Among the etching and aquatints by Thomas Wood are the most humorous artworks in Things Imagined, but humor isn’t his most consistent feature. Wood’s symbolic vocabulary focuses on large landscapes and animals—a proper complement to Butler’s circus. (Wood even has a piece called “Atlas With The Clowns.”) He is a chameleon of style: “Jesus Preaching to the Dinosaurs” uses touches of pink to enhance its slightly naive style, while the velvety shading of “The Harvest” show a mastery of the medium.

Given the preeminence of Goya, Tenniel, Doré, Redon, Kublin and Escher—to name a few—many of the best known prints today are surreal. Hence, one is not really caught unawares by Wood’s odd mash-ups of contemporary figures, archeology, religion and myth. Rather, they evoke an untold narrative that feels familiar. By relying on styles that recall literary illustration, Wood’s work distinguishes itself from that of the other artists in Things Imagined. Whereas Butler, Nebeker and Lysak offer visions that feel voyeurized, Wood offers narrative prompts.

For example: In “Flight of the Warriors of Western Ideology,” Wood fills the upper half of the etching (and the sky) with a careful craze of rippling lines to depict volcanic smoke, while below he fills the earth with detailed trees, terraces, towers and a rambling town by the sea. The clouds feel more like Franklin Booth, while the rest could be Gustav Doré. The “Warriors” are dragoons mounted atop giant flying fish, soaring in formation into the distance.

"Flight of the Warriors of Western Ideology" by Thomas Wood. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

“Flight of the Warriors of Western Ideology” by Thomas Wood. Image courtesy of Harris/Harvey Gallery.

Whither? That’s up to the viewer. There’s a an absurd lightness to it all, despite the invasion of poissoniers and catastrophic eruption. Is it a doomed expedition? A sky full of delirious, quixotic dreamers? Whatever the case may be, it’s the kind of reverie one wants during winter and the slow collapse of western civilization outside the gallery doors. Enjoy it while you can.

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T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.