Maribel Portela

at Aldo Castillo, 233 W. Huron, through July 17

Frank Pollard: Field Manual

at Dogmatic, through July 17

One inspiration for Maribel Portela’s ten startlingly real full-size ceramic figures at Aldo Castillo is the “army” of thousands of terra-cotta warriors near Xian, China, placed around the tomb of China’s first emperor in about 210 B.C. But there are telling differences. The figures in the terra-cotta army vary only moderately–it’s believed that most of the body parts were made in a kind of assembly-line process. Each of Portela’s pieces, on the other hand, is different from the rest and visually seductive. One is gold, recalling Egyptian mummies; another is faintly Mayan; a third wears a necklace and carries a wooden staff, suggesting that he’s an Amazonian Indian. Half are women. This is a multicultural army–surely part of the point.

But Portela, who’s Mexican, is more artist than anthropologist; while her work is full of cultural echoes, she invents many of the details. She says that growing up surrounded by pre-Columbian art had an influence, but that her “passion” for living and for the 21 million people of Mexico City, each with “a story to tell,” was a bigger factor. While the narrow eyes of the figure in Drag–n de los cuatro vientos (“Four-Winged Dragon”) suggest that he’s Asian, the large white bird sitting on his head is the artist’s own invention, inspired by “thoughts of flying.” Portela thinks of the figure holding a starfish in Cazador de miradas (“Hunter of Gazes”) as an Australian aborigine, though the line drawings of plants and animals on his body could have come from many cultures. By mixing specific cultural references with invented ones, Portela gives her figures a universal quality; they reflect both human variety and similarity, reminding us that, as Armando Almaz‡n Reyes wrote in a catalog essay on Portela, “We are nothing but clay.”

Not all Portela’s references are ancient. La Torre (“The Tower”) is a stack of 12 stone heads with schematic features–some eyes are simple indentations–arranged on shelves. The piece looks a bit like a strip of film, a reference Portela intended; she says that she was also thinking of evolution, but that evolution could be “from primitive to modern or from primitive to more primitive.” The work suggests neither direction but rather that no period of culture is superior to any other–indeed, “primitive” and “modern” works often look alike.

Though influenced by art from a variety of cultures, Portela argues against the idea of progress in art or in civilization–and even against the superiority of humans. Caricias Tatuadas (“Tattooed Loving Touch”) is an oversize hand with disks on the knuckles; in the palm is a head wearing a headdress of seedpods that burst out in all directions, natural forms that seem more powerful than the face.

Portela creates a metaphor for the world in Paisaje Circular (“Circular Landscape”), an openwork bronze circle traversed by “branches” resembling twigs. Perched on the twigs are plants, animals, humans, and a half-human, half-animal creature of the sort common in “primitive” art. But Portela thickens her cultural stew with another reference: four Western building entrances with archways. Throughout the exhibit, one detail or another undermines both a purely visual interpretation and a straightforward cultural reading. Portela’s sculptures are both curiously out of time and consistently evocative of human culture and history.

Frank Pollard, a former Chicagoan who now lives in Bloomington, Illinois, is also inspired by culture–American pop culture. However, his nearly 200 untitled paintings and drawings and five sculptures at Dogmatic make no specific references. Pollard avidly consumed comics, television, and pulp novels as a kid; he also loved the “Japanese ghost stories” his Japanese grandmother told him. Pollard thinks his earliest experience of a painting was in the movie The Picture of Dorian Gray–and also recalls the paintings that opened the TV series Night Gallery as examples of art’s “mystical power.”

However, Pollard relies mostly on his dreams for inspiration. His “New Agey” mom encouraged him to keep a dream journal as a teenager, and within a few years disturbing monsters started appearing. He says the first one traumatized him so much that he tried to find out more about it–by interrogating the people in his other dreams. A few years later, he began reading Jung.

The result of some 15 years of investigation is fascinating and disturbing. This show includes 88 paintings of monsters and 63 of “objects of interest,” accompanied by binders labeled “Field Manual: Monsters” and “Field Manual: Objects of Interest.” In these manuals there’s a page for each painting that usually describes whatever’s depicted–though a number are labeled “unknown.” Connecting many descriptions and the corresponding works can be laborious, involving the viewer in a sort of labyrinth.

Above the description of each monster in the manual is a silhouetted diagram of the whole monster–the painting usually shows the upper portion–compared to a human silhouette. A white octopuslike beast is described as something that escapes when the ice thaws to collect “escaped spirits until the next frost”; a hulking presence in the painting, it’s rendered even more alarming by the diagram, in which it looms over the silhouetted man. A critter with pointy hornlike ears and bared teeth is noted to be a “dangerous assassin,” and a gooey green ring wrapped around a man’s head is described as a “very intelligent” being that will “only use humans for transportation.”

The objects are just as disturbing. Some are said to be weapons used by the “Agency.” One looks a bit like a mousetrap but is ominously described as a machine that “can generate monsters and beasts who multiply exponentially.” One painting shows a man with a grotesquely fat face and wearing a sailor outfit who’s described as “one of the workers on the human livestock farm,” where “all kinds of human meats…for monsters” are processed.

Pollard gives the paintings his own brand of realism, rendering his creatures with some precision, depicting them in bright colors and boldly outlined forms. Together the paintings and the binder diagrams and descriptions create a world as convincing as Portela’s sculptures, even though their cultural references are less explicit and less important to the work. But the strongest piece in the show–one of Pollard’s five sculptures–has greater visual complexity and a more immediate appeal.

In art school Pollard became fascinated with cinema–the cult classic El topo was one inspiration. He started building film sets but found that the sets themselves were more compelling than his footage. Set construction led to the three sculptures of cardboard and plaster in Dogmatic’s basement “earth room,” which has a dirt floor. The largest is perhaps three or four feet tall and encloses a vertical cavelike space traversed by walkways, visible on one open side, that recall Piranesi’s prints of fantasy prison interiors. Each walkway leads to a tiny cave in the sculpture’s wall, producing an effect as disorientingly labyrinthine as Pollard’s paintings and binders. The smaller caves are created by simply adding cardboard to the outside, and Pollard makes no attempt to conceal the artifice. After one has almost started to believe in green clouds and the Agency’s weapons, it’s comforting to find a construction that acknowledges its fakery.