Spencer Dormitzer

at Space Gallery, through October 7

John Fraser

at Roy Boyd Gallery, through October 17

Spencer Dormitzer’s startlingly goofy paintings–15 are on view at Space Gallery–are something of a surprise even today, when anything can be art. True, bright, pop colors, cartoonish imagery, and bizarre fantasy figures all made it into galleries years ago. What’s striking is the way his aggressive, sensually colored figures, which look like pop icons but are mostly his inventions, are often left almost surrealistically unexplained. His work is a bit like a brilliantly drawn comic book, more subtly colored than it seems at first, with a story by Andre Breton.

The woman in Starstruck seems almost a jack-in-the-box figure, the way her long neck propels her into the center of the frame. “Starstruck” is lettered across the top, yet her expression isn’t exactly awed–a bit befuddled perhaps, almost hypnotized. No “star” is visible: instead the background is filled with diffuse, painterly red and orange vertical stripes. Nor is the title Ugly Side of Love explained by the work: we see a boy, bucktoothed and baffled, with bright yellow and red flames behind his head and the title again printed across the top. These figures command attention but seem victimized by emotional states that are named but otherwise unaccounted for, offering a kind of anti-Freudian model for emotional life: feelings seize you, control you, set your world ablaze, but where they originate and why is utterly beyond comprehension.

In much of Dormitzer’s work we see a frozen moment of a narrative, characters trapped in a struggle they don’t understand. In And Then………. a woman sits next to a monkey, which has its arms wrapped around her affectionately; she grasps a car’s steering wheel, though no other car parts are visible. One recalls King Kong, but this little primate is hardly a physical threat–it looks a bit befuddled itself. The upset-looking woman and unsure-of-itself monkey, the suggestion from the cloud background of an enchanted voyage, and the title’s invitation to imagine what happens next combine improbably to create an effect that’s rather, well, hilarious.

Humor is not highly valued in the art world. The possibility that laughter can itself be serious, even sublime, is rarely considered. But Dormitzer’s humor, fun in itself, also serves a larger purpose: it heightens the absurdity of the situations his characters are caught in. In Badass Descending a Staircase a black woman stands confrontationally, legs slightly spread, on a staircase, facing off with a white woman in a bikini below whose head is cut off at about the mouth. From the empty space within the head a small flagpole with a banner rises, on which the words “YOU AINT SHIT” are printed–presumably a joke on the white woman’s empty-headed racism. Smaller details make the white woman seem totally silly: her bikini is orange with red polka dots, and her pinkish, perhaps sunburned skin has lighter-colored polka dots. She may well be a pale person trying, and failing, to get a tan, and the light dots are similar in shade to what one would expect to see under her bikini–a little voyeuristic fantasy, perhaps? The similar polka-dot patterns on her skin and bathing suit suggest that attempts to alter one’s skin color are absurd, akin to the efforts of a clothing designer to “remake” an individual.

One might guess from his work that Dormitzer is one of many recent artists inspired primarily by comic books and cartoons. But by his own account his key art experience came when he saw a Mark Rothko painting at the Art Institute. Then in his late teens, he’d been drawing all through high school but only at this point realized that “paint on canvas can be something more than paint on canvas….I finally found the connection between what a person does and what a person feels.” He began working in the abstract expressionist manner, but five years later, on a single night in 1991, adopted his present style, “really getting personal with my work.”

Dormitzer, 28, was a loner as a kid, relentlessly teased in part because of his unusual appearance–he never rinsed the soap out of his hair, for example, “so it would shoot all over the place.” His parents split up when he was young, and he spent many afternoons outdoors. “I had these backwoods that went on forever; I was always watching UFOs, killing enemies–then you throw in nude women…” At about age six he discovered that his “dad had the greatest Playboy collection ever–Playboy, Oui, Penthouse. There was this vision of a woman I never really lost, this amazing superwoman that came out of nowhere.” Imagining the mixture of wonder and bafflement he must have felt at seeing nude women as a child for me added a human dimension to his odd mixture of aggression and mystery, of self-assured characters who proudly display themselves and inexplicable situations, of human drama and surreal apparition.

Dormitzer’s weirdest–and best–pictures tend to be his most cluttered: competing forms leading in different directions make rational explanation seem impossible. My own favorite, Showdown, depicts another face-off between two women. Both have polka-dotted skins: one’s is dark blue dots on light tan, and the other’s is light tan dots on dark blue. Clearly these “opposites” aren’t much different. They float in a luminous yellow sky, an abstracted green landscape below, a road and telephone wires receding toward a distant vanishing point. (But white streaks on the land, presumably furrows, don’t change at all as they recede–a joke on the arbitrariness of representational systems, for Dormitzer as arbitrary as skin color.) Snaking around the two women is a long red band tying them together like a lasso; a huge green tube, its black openings visible at both ends, floats in the foreground. The tube further complicates the perspective, providing a tunnel that the mind’s eye can enter, and Dormitzer says that such tubes are personal signs that the picture can always be altered. For the viewer, it humorously literalizes the idea of “openness.” There are also many short orange tubes, from each of which sprouts the head of a man, woman, or puppetlike creature, all of them sporting different facial expressions and looking in different directions; none of their gazes meet, and only some focus on the “showdown.”

The care with which Dormitzer chooses his colors–most are mixtures of several pigments rather than the flat monochromes of cartoons–gives his surfaces a rewarding, varied sensuality. The utter goofiness of his diverse critters, the sum of whose expressions deny the possibility of any conclusion, is almost ecstatic: Dormitzer’s thicket of figures and shapes are at once pulling together and tearing apart.

John Fraser’s art seems the diametric opposite of Dormitzer’s. He uses found objects; his colors–typically pale tan and white–are subdued, almost monochromatic; his work’s effect is quiet, meditative; and reviewers, if they refer to his humor at all, use such words as “droll.” Yet I found myself chuckling at many of his 18 pieces at Roy Boyd Gallery, the ones that make a joke of their missing “content.”

Screen Play suggests traditional theater: each of five small connected wooden panels is covered with a piece of paper printed with a phrase: “Act I,” “Act II,” and so on. The punning title also points out the work’s resemblance to a Japanese folding screen. But there’s no further content, no additional words. One untitled work consists of a wooden panel on which Fraser has mounted an antique binder for photographs from which he’s cut out the photo. The cutout oval, recalling the shape of old photo portraits, is mounted on the wall next to the panel. In Prologue/Epilogue these two words are printed on opposite ends of a long wooden panel; mounted between them on a string is a book binding with the pages mostly cut off so that no words are visible. This art is made up of “containers” that have traditionally held works of some ambition–plays, novels, photographs. The effect is a bit like a painting exhibition with the canvases removed and only the frames displayed.

Doubtless some artist has actually done that, but Fraser’s goal is not to deny content but to replace the traditional focus on content with another kind of interest. He describes his color choice as “that range of ecru that gets to the neutrality” he aims for. The pale tans and whites of his surfaces also suggest aging, as do the random splotches and discolorations–dark specks, paler stains. These give the works some of the feel of precious antique objects that have been lovingly saved and displayed. Yet these details betray no human intentionality or control. Whereas Dormitzer’s paintings express his personality–his love of the brash, the proud, the humorously incongruous–Fraser’s art focuses on his materials and the process of seeing itself.

Each work directs our attention in a different way. Consider the two architect’s rules in Scale and Below, joined at a right angle at the top left corner to frame a piece of canvas. The fact that the position of each tiny dot, each detail of the canvas’s weave, can be located, as on a graph, by the two rules makes such details seem significant. But they quickly reveal themselves to be randomly distributed. Thus the rulers themselves come to seem arbitrary enclosures, metaphors for the ways we seek to contain immeasurable reality. As Fraser remarks, “If you look out the window, everything from the windowpane out is infinite.”

Fraser, who’s 43 and lives in Saint Charles, “really enjoyed spending time with myself drawing” as a child. A grandmother exposed him to “museums, theater, symphonic music, jazz,” and his interest in the arts was encouraged. One parallel with Dormitzer: an abstract expressionist painting at the Art Institute, “the big black Clyfford Still,” provided Fraser a transformative moment. “I just remember being impacted by this vastness–if I were going to assign a word to it, it would be ‘infinite.’ The variation in that surface is immense…it extended the limit of my perception.” He soon found that “the work that satisfies me the most is the work that becomes just a celebration of the act of its making.”

Another influence on Fraser is clothing design. He worked as a designer himself for some years but found that his work was ephemeral: “I’d spend nine months developing a line…and then within a blink of the eye the thing was no longer fashionable.” From his stepfather, who was a sales rep for men’s shirts, he obtained a variety of shirt collars (dating, he thinks, from between the wars) that had been used for display and made them the basis of a number of works. He still admires the anonymous craftsmanship that went into these collars, and also recalls how “the particular style of the collar indicated the position of the wearer in the social mix.”

Fraser’s collar pieces clearly express his notion that “some of the best work is the work that defies identity.” These collars are stripped of their social meaning. In another untitled work a collar is mounted vertically on a wood backing, revealing its “I” shape. In A Painting (In Appearance) Fraser mounts 11 collars horizontally in parallel bands; Spin fastens collars together in a sphere. Fraser effaces the proud self-presentation of these markers of personality, just as he eschews the usual forms of self-expression in his art; his simple geometries focus on the collars themselves, not the artist’s hand.

I especially liked Read, which focuses particularly clearly on an aged surface. Fraser has sealed the back of an old envelope in acrylic and varnish and mounted it on canvas. The top of the envelope is ripped irregularly, and the few slivers of paper reveal tiny upside-down fragments of a handwritten return address and the postmark. These recall the envelope’s original function, as the carrier of a personal letter, but our attention is more focused on the tiny blotches on the back of the envelope. Signs of individual human identity are present in Fraser’s work only as indications of what he wishes to leave behind.

Perhaps this is why several works focus on the impersonal heavens. The Seasons is made up of four panels each printed with the name of a season; a wood ball is mounted on the wall under each panel. These tan globes are actually used croquet balls with their abrasions filled in and replaced by black splotches and the occasional hint of red. Filled with tiny details, this work nevertheless recalls rotating planets, solstices and equinoxes.