Buffalo Hunting: Images of Shame and Power

at NFA Space, through February 1

Spaced Out: A Voyage Into Sci-Fi Art

at Steppenwolf Theatre, through January 24

By Mark Swartz

“Do you think it’s misogynistic?” Iain Muirhead asked me as we stood amid the stereotypically male iconography of “Buffalo Hunting,” an all-male art exhibit he helped organize and contributed to. I surveyed the predictable assortment of guns, cars, televisions, country music icons, and scenes of explicit and implicit violence and said, “No, but it’s got that kind of feel.”

I mentioned David Mamet, and we talked about Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Moby-Dick and Hemingway. In other words, the tree house of American literature–no gurls allowed. “That’s the stuff NFA feels comfortable with,” Muirhead told me. Even though I believe that the meeting of the sexes generates more varied and stimulating art than either sex produces in isolation, I can’t deny that some pretty solid stuff has come down from the tree house. Nor will I cast aspersions on the stated theme of the exhibit, “an unspoken and symbolic gathering of men.” Just leave your tom-toms at home, please.

To tell the truth, the Uptown locale of Muirhead’s gallery (NFA stands for both “New Fine Art” and “Not Fucking Around”), which he runs along with Amavong Panya, does not lend itself to sissy art. The urban scenery on Racine near Wilson is pretty damn bleak. Mr. James, the proprietor of the eponymous grocery store next door, has taped his 12-gauge license to the window.

Artist Jay Doering metaphorically overmatches Mr. James’s firepower with an untitled sculpture that takes the form of a small but workable cast-iron cannon. Pointed at the doorway of the gallery, his sculpture makes one of those dangerously playful gestures that grown-up little boys seem to enjoy. In effect Doering is saying, This is not a neighborhood where you casually play with guns. Another piece of his, Abe Lincoln’s Bazooka, makes a playful but less macho statement: its barrel is a big log.

Panya, a Tennessee native of Laotian descent, memorializes the 1950s automobile–possibly the single best-known icon of all Americana. He renders in oils on copper and wood such models as the 1955 Ford Thunderbird, superimposing them on silhouettes of miscellany like the ducktail hairstyle and poodle-skirted chick. If there’s any surprise here it’s that there are no surprises: Panya neither juxtaposes irreconcilable iconography nor attempts to rupture contiguous meanings. His copper-and-wood fetishes are too well crafted to be ironic, but I can’t think of a purpose for making them except irony.

Muirhead and Marion Kryczka, his teacher at the School of the Art Institute, are both skillful, playfully inventive painters who borrow from unusual visual sources without leaning too heavily on them. Kryczka’s disquieting still lifes include foil bags of potato chips and Renaissance woodcuts, copied with equal care. His Still Life With Murder Victims represents the ingredients of a Scorsese knockoff–dice, cigarettes, photographs of corpses–arranged for maximum cinematic impact; that is, they’re too carefully placed to have come about in the natural course of events. A large collage by Muirhead mounted on a swinging door had as its beginning a page from an obscure prayer book the artist once used as a sketchbook. Before the book was stolen, he projected this particular page onto wood, tracing not only his enigmatic drawing but the text it covered. The complex process behind Twofer: Jesus Is Comin’ makes it seem the show’s greatest departure from the stated theme; to me it seemed the beginning of an inquiry into the artist’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness.

Robert Lentz offers the most varied, least traditional assortment of work in “Buffalo Hunting” without losing sight of the show’s theme. Primarily a sculptor and found-object finder, Lentz gives country music titles (“Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive,” “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can”) to the general-store kitsch objects he hangs on the walls. His bayou minimalist installation in the gallery’s front window reveals him to be a soul divided between contemporary theoretical seriousness and the lowbrow pleasures of country music and fishing. Within a porchlike screened box he’s secreted souvenirs of these anti-urbane pursuits in a hollow he’s made in the wall. Yet the display of hidden objects–an oxymoron by definition–is itself an artful gesture.

With the notable exception of Fox TV, the presentation of UFO data tends to be a clandestine activity conducted primarily over the Internet. Images of alien abductions do not often get past the gates of high culture, so it was a surprise to see what appear to be sincere glimpses of alien life at Steppenwolf Theatre’s gallery. In conjunction with Space, the play currently running, the “nomadic” Anatomically Correct gallery has organized a show of paintings, drawings, computer-generated pictures, and a sound installation. Focusing on aliens, the exhibit includes comments from the artists on such subjects as abductions, extraterrestrial life, and the universal longing to make a connection out there.

Or is it universal? All of the artists in “Spaced Out” are male. Debra Hatchett, who’s curated exhibitions tailored to local theatrical productions through Anatomically Correct for the past few years, says she looked for female perspectives: “I tried so hard to get a woman in this exhibit, but even though I’m told there are women who do this kind of work, I couldn’t find one.”

Most of the items exhibited belong to a subcategory of religious outsider art: King VelVeeda, Ray Vlcek, and Dave Denman make work in this vein. Others, like Alex Wald and Shane Swank, seem to be devotees of anything-goes adolescent pop. But something happens to these genres when they’re brought into the Steppenwolf: they themselves become an alien presence in the realm of high art. No matter how sincere the artists may have been in making these works, here they’re enclosed in quotation marks. They made me think of Chris Holmes’s defunct show on WHPK, “In Advance of the Landing”: his interviews with people who claimed to have had encounters with UFOs took on a certain hipness when broadcast by a station that usually plays free jazz and experimental rock.

The exceptions in this exhibit are less easily classified and therefore more vivid to viewers not drawn to UFO culture. Brian Miller’s sharp, bright acrylic paintings meant to resemble fantastic alien telecasts represent the wish for contact while acknowledging that such an event would be exploited by the media. He captions a mesmerizing warm green mass, vaguely human in its outline, with the inevitable boast “Brought to you by the Experimental Laboratories of Miller Enterprises–Live.” (That “Live” is a good joke on the medium of painting, similar in that respect only to Mark Tansey’s monochromatic “action paintings” of race-car crashes.)

Chris Chaudruc’s smoky colored-pencil drawings Airship 3 and Airship 4 give these alien-transport contraptions an organic, almost vegetable form. The drawings are laid out on grids and hung so that they buldge slightly, the top borders a few inches from the wall while the bottoms are flush with it. In that sense these flat drawings occupy a curved “space.” Chaudruc has mixed feelings about the stories he’s heard. “Alien abductions are dicey, repressed memories,” he writes. “But hey, don’t we all scan the sky for man’s friends?”

Bill Talsma, creator of the atmospheric, unnervingly quiet sound installation in “Spaced Out,” is more definite: “I do not believe in alien abductions.” At the other end of the spectrum is King VelVeeda, who’s based his entire oeuvre on the close encounters he’s had, dating back to 1947. I didn’t leave the exhibit any better persuaded that we are not alone, but I did feel closer to the boyish imagination that makes and shapes such scenarios. Both exhibits recalled the miniature objects and battery-powered vehicles that occupied my time in childhood–and that would probably inform my visual lexicon now if I were a visual artist.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “The Ladder” by Ray Vlcek/.