Goldmine Shithouse

at Gallery Mornea, through July 7

First there’s the name, the Goldmine Shithouse, with its suggestion of one foot planted squarely in the gutter. Then there’s the wild method of creation. The three members of this “NYC artist consortium”–Colin Burns, David Hochbaum, and Travis Lindquist–spend a brief, intensive period at a given gallery, where together they create each painted/ pasted/penciled-on-plywood piece by passing it around until they all agree it’s finished. Lastly, there’s the hype: the three declare that their art “deals with violent and difficult themes, filtered through their inexhaustible sense of humor.” Take even one of these elements and you might expect to see some fairly savage stuff among the results of their ten-day session at Evanston’s Gallery Mornea. You certainly wouldn’t be prepared for anything pretty. But pretty it is.

Pretty, and pretty orderly. Sure, there’s some necessary roughness. Each of the 40 pieces is backed by a square or rectangular plywood board screwed onto a crude wood frame, both wood and screws often left visible through the paint and other materials. There are lots of dribbles, unmotivated swatches of color, messages (handwritten as well as stenciled), and self-consciously naive drawings scratched into surfaces like so many doodles on a high school student’s desk. And yet the overall effect is of cool, highly orchestrated attractiveness.

No doubt a big part of that effect has to do with the clean geometry of the pieces’ positioning on the gallery’s exceedingly white walls. A group of 24 one-foot-square paintings, for example, is hung in a lattice formation as regular as the windows on a Mies van der Rohe building–an arrangement that goes a long way toward defeating any incipient chaos lurking within the frames. Or would, if there were any incipient chaos to defeat. The works are as smoothly arranged as the walls. The artists’ palette of ochers, blues, and mostly dark reds–with occasional festive splashes of gold or silver foil–is knowing and tasteful in the manner of a truly hip hotel. The repeated use of appropriated images–medieval peasants, gothic lettering, Renaissance saints, masted ships, winged lions, rendered for the most part in a woodcut style–makes some pieces look like decoupaged serving trays from a truly hip crafts store. I saw the show with my wife, who’s a graphic designer, and she thought the aesthetic would translate nicely into her professional vernacular. Should they want it, Burns, Hochbaum, and Lindquist have a future in design.

Though the vaunted shithouse savagery doesn’t materialize, the show holds our attention in other ways. One is the palette, which is no less lively for being hip. A suite of four paintings in particular–Stoner Jesus, Summer Isle, Revival, and Hare–carries on an entire remarkably voluble and varied conversation in blue, orange, ocher, and black.

Sometimes the Goldmine Shithouse tries to make the work talk more conventionally, through easily accessible pseudoliterary images. Mount Dracula shows a black carriage in the shadow of the title promontory, with monkeys pacing on its roof and a livid, sad man inside; a hooded, sharp-toothed head out of Philip Guston hovers above, completing the half-creepy, half-camp effect. A rather oversize joke, What the Fuck Is Up consists of a lion riding a leopard whose thoughts are the apparent source of the title. And the one-foot-square A Seaman’s Lot comes right out and tells us, “Misery, Danger, & Empty Pockets A seaman’s lot.”

But the most interesting conversations here are the subtler ones that go on within individual works. Bob Meyer, a visual artist and playwright who used to live in Chicago, once told me he started to write plays when the titles of his drawings got too long. Something similar goes on in the best works here, when the interaction among the three artists takes visual form. Rather than extend their dialogue into prose, they fold it back onto the plywood surface, layering counterpoint over point over counterpoint over point, paint over applique over stencil over writing.

A large two-panel work, Joy Follows, is my favorite expression of this dynamic. A clump of men in medieval dress watch as an impossible creature–half hart, half rooster–bounds out of the frame, demonic resonance in its clawed feet. A pasted-in tract on free will reads, in part, “God does not control everyone or everything. He controls the sun, the moon, the stars, the tide, and the universe, but He does not and will not control men.” Elsewhere, a handwritten sentence: “You filled a lot of people with dread back then.” The work is covered in a pale, translucent yellow wash through which it’s easy to see the grain of the wood. Look closer, though, and you find something between the wash and the grain, disclosed like pentimento. At first it appears as isolated jottings–“fig. 111”–but then lines and arcs manifest themselves and you realize you’re looking at some kind of mathematical diagram, perhaps an astronomical plotting, perhaps not. The point is the order beneath the menace, the reassurance–even transcendence–under the fear (but over a plain slab of board). The piece turns out to be a philosophical interchange in cosmic terms. And, not incidentally, a comment that what we’re after here is neither the gold mine nor the shithouse but the two revealed in each other.