The West Town gallery Roots & Culture has shown a wide variety of work over the last three years, but, as with most good independent spaces, there’s a house style. It is a recognizable look, the folksy RISD-style psychedelic expressionism promulgated in the wider culture by macramé owls with twig antlers and Day-Glo silk-screen posters with misspelled words arranged on mountains made of diamond shapes. As we reach the turn of the next decade, this faux-primitive handmade aesthetic has, on the one hand, consolidated into a formal surface of ready signifiers that can be freely manipulated like beats and samples and, on the other, deepened into a legitimate if intuitive conceptual approach.
This former aesthetic hedonism teeters on the boundary of self-awareness and pure shamanic design in the works of Rob Doran, now on display. Hot colors in gradient discs sit amidst thick and muddy zigzag brushstrokes. There are, in fact, twigs, mountains, diamond shapes and misspelled words, both handwritten and printed, not to mention dirty white backgrounds and handmade frames. The moment of self-awareness for me comes with a small outsider-esque sculpture sitting on a found plank, in which a braided white snake peers up at the viewer through a miniature wild-haired African mask, flouting the last forty-odd years of scathing critique directed at Picasso-style colonial appropriation. If we are in a truly post-colonial (if not post-racial) universe, then these pieces deliver evocative atavism with breezy aplomb. If we are not, then there’s more of a kick here, though it might be directed at Doran rather than (or as well as) from him.
The promise of this style to move into a more grown-up visual approach is winningly evoked in the installation by the industrious Ryan Fenchel. The top of a hexagonal warm-gray wall forms a display surface for a number of odd artifacts, among them a collection of collapsing cylindrical forms made from paper clay and painted with delicate stripes and motifs, a couple of standing painted-wood frames to which are affixed various found materials, and some unpainted geometrically shaped wooden blocks. On the inside of the yoni-like wall is a short lingam pedestal, also hexagonal and gray, bearing a dead bonsai tree bedecked with living air plants. On the walls around and adjoining this collection are more handmade wooden wall pieces, one pair displays an odd little painted bas-relief still-life next to a more sculptural rendition of the painted shapes on a tilted plane, and another tilted piece shows remnants of a salt sculpture Fenchel created last year, adhered scattershot across a tan slab. He even built a two-person bench, complete with cushions, hexagonal ashtray-type shape and random protruding triangle.
Informing Fenchel’s practice is an interest in the alchemical doctrines of Masonry, which does lend his work a degree of intention and coherence. But more importantly, it brings forth an aura that at least suggests a refabulation of fine art, the romantic totems and obsessive shrines of Joseph Beuys and Paul Thek, the visceral museological caverns of Ann Hamilton and Annette Messager, something you don’t just read about or see, but actually experience in person. (Bert Stabler)
Through December 6 at Roots & Culture, 1034 N. Milwaukee