With contemporary artists each pursuing distinctive visions, tracing a unifying thread in a multi-artist exhibition can present a curatorial challenge. Old Crow Tattoo and Gallery in Oakland takes this challenge head on in their new dynamic exhibition, “Sweeping of Giants,” which features works from artists Robert Bowen, Jessica Jenkins, Jeff “Weirdo” Jacobson, David Polka and Shawn Whisenant.
The title “Sweeping of Giants” initially establishes an expectation for a breezy flow between the artworks. To achieve this placidity, evenness and continuity, Old Crow displayed art in simple arrangements around the space. They ordered the artists in a way that constructed a clear narrative for the viewer. These deliberate choices yielded an exhibition with both energy and order. Old Crow by no means makes it easy, but if the viewer is up for the challenge, the show’s complex sequencing can be smoothly followed and appreciated.
Each artist brought his or her own personality and point of view to the space. Starting with Bowen’s distillations of bizarre contradictions, the progression begins with several uncomfortable but humorous paintings. In “An Alliterative Nightmare,” a perfectly symmetrical arrangement of creatures, a three-eyed rabbit crowned by an enormous beetle serves as the central axis. Pulling from an unrestricted subconscious, he flanks the rabbit with the most oddball of elements: birds with dinosaur-like jaws instead of beaks, adorable bunnies with octopus tentacles for ears and birds vomiting rainbows.
Jenkins’ ink drawings on paper follow Bowen’s sharply rendered paintings. She recently happened upon a book of old medical etchings and these served as inspiration for her brand-new pieces. “I started appropriating them and adding things that I found humorous,” she said in reference to the piranha sets of teeth she adds to the compositions (which call back to Bowen’s dinosaur teeth superimposed on the birds.) In two works, the jaws replace an eye of the portrait, and in the third the piranha emerges from an ear wash procedure. “I love teeth. I don’t know why. I’m fascinated by teeth,” she said before describing how she recently cast her extracted wisdom teeth in bronze for future reproduction.
In adding painted teeth as a dissonant element to otherwise methodical ink etchings, Jenkins brings to light a broader message with her art. Her mother is a nurse, so she constantly hears stories about working in Western medicine. “I don’t know if this was my intention when I started out,” she said, “But I realized that it was critiquing modern medicine. They’re always treating symptoms, not the direct cause. And I find that to be inherently wrong.”
Adjacent to Jenkins’ works, Weirdo also plays with scientific realism and wild fantasy. He tackles themes of life and death in acrylic. His painting “Soulless” depicts a tattooed man frontally facing the viewer and holding an iridescent tomato cupped in both hands. From his shoulder grows structures that resemble intestinal tubing or a growing fungus. “Organs,” as he calls these structures, serve as “a representation of my spiritual element.” He makes the creative, spiritual force that overflows from each person physical and perceivable.
In order to achieve the realism in his compositions, Weirdo coordinates photo shoots, sometimes using Adobe Photoshop to create pictures from which to paint. In these photorealistic compositions, he adds flitting moths and graphic, colored triangles sprinkled on the paintings like confetti. These, he says, represent the modern age and the constant influx of information. He unites all these components “into a surreal format because it’s more fun that way.”
Two paintings away, Weirdo displays a canvas filled with an incredibly lifelike eye, which he describes as a zoomed-in view of the man’s eye in “Soulless.” “You have to imagine a larger universe of my work,” he said. To further establish that sense of fluidity in his own piece, he places one of his signature triangle elements subtly in the center of the pupil.
Opposite Bowen, Jenkins and Weirdo, are the works of Polka and Whisenant, who create more tangible artworks. Polka paints Native American-inspired works on reclaimed wood blocks, which he acquires from alleys or dumpsters. He, too, is interested in the cycle of life, which follows from Weirdo’s series. “I’m really interested in human experience, and how memory and emotion accumulate,” he said. “How past experience shapes what we do, and the decisions we make now.” In glaring contrast to Weirdo’s work, and that of the other artists, his paintings are rooted in illustrative and graphic techniques with an earth-toned color pallet.
Finally, Whisenant takes the tangibility of art to a heightened extreme. He uses colored threads to weave together paper scraps and cutouts into textiles. The touchability of his work creates an intense juxtaposition with the exhibition’s more realistic paintings, which emphasize the subject rather than the material. Dichotomies like this are present throughout, and help to establish a palpable tension that drives the show.
The melange of art, the veritable mixed bag of creative minds, converge in animated dialogue at Old Crow. The “sweeping” quality the exhibition achieves requires careful patience, but when the flow is realized, so too is the masterful subtlety behind the show and each work of art.
Anna Carey is the lead visual art critic.