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Too sweet for me

Kittredge Gallery show worthy, except Claire Johnson went sweet on me

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In my fall arts guide article last week, I said I was majorly impressed back in ’99 by Claire Johnson’s realistic paintings of scenes in a San Francisco nightclub and that I looked forward to seeing what she’s doing now.

Well, I saw what she’s doing now — in a group show with Tom Foolery and Chris Theiss at Kittredge Gallery, University of Puget Sound — and I was majorly disappointed. Her earlier work was realistic in the true sense of the word, meaning unflinching and uncompromising. But her latest paintings are sugary sweet. Almost literally. They are paintings of donuts. Thirty paintings in acrylic on wood panels, each depicting one or two donuts on an unpainted wood surface with trompe l’oeil cast shadows to create a 3-D effect. They are skillfully painted and very decorative, but boring. Like Andy Warhols without the acid bite.

The other two artists showing with her are much more interesting.

Theiss is showing a series of houses and interiors complete with people, lampshades, televisions, and all the stuff you’d expect to find in a typical home. These interior set pieces are made of ceramic, vitreous slip and sgraffito. They are about the size of small flowerpots and are made of flat planes that jut out in weird angles as if a model room had been folded by some mad origami artist. And they are all colored matt black with white markings.

It helps to understand Theiss’ methods and materials. Sgraffito is Italian for “scratched.” It is a technique used in painting, pottery, and glass that consists of putting down a preliminary surface, covering it with another, and then scratching the superficial layer in such a way that the pattern or shape that emerges is of the lower color. Vitreous slip is a ceramic glazing method that creates a similar look. It was often used in early Greek pottery. The surface look Theiss achieves through these techniques is similar to scratchboard illustration, and the overall look of his interiors is that of pages from a comical pop-up book.

I didn’t count the number of pieces, but there is a whole city of these sculptural works with each standing on a separate pedestal. A truly observant visitor could easily spend hours wandering among these and finding detail after detail.

Speaking of detail, Foolery is obsessed with realistic and witty details in his model cityscapes inside of gumball machines and jukeboxes of the type that sat on tables in 1950s diners. Like ships in a bottle inside of these vintage containers, he builds scale model city streets complete with buildings, cars, street signs, and people. His cityscapes are all satires on Western culture and Western art. They are all about upper-crust art galleries that specialize in cowboy art and the artists, dealers and collectors who inhabit them. Like most modern art galleries, Foolery’s buildings are well lighted from within. The galleries are located mostly in renovated buildings, and everything is clean and bright.

His humor is manifested most obviously in the names of the galleries. One is called “Pair O’ D Gallery” (get the pun?). The “Last Chance Western Art” gallery has a for rent sign on it. The “Old West Gallery” is in the ground floor of an old brick building with a big “Merchantiller” sign above the plate glass windows of the gallery. In front of the “Giddyup Gauche Gallery,” an artist or dealer is seen loading paintings into the back of a renovated 1930s truck with the gallery name emblazoned above the words “Dead Era Denizens.”

Foolery’s realistic details are amazing. What sly humor from both Foolery and Theiss, two model builders gone mad.

[Kittredge Gallery, through Sept. 28. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, North 15th Street and North Lawrence Street, Tacoma, 253.879.2806]

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