“Snooping for a New Lexis of Peace” is an attempt to discover a new vocabulary of imagery relating to recent U.S.-led military adventures. A lot of people have questioned the lack of “oppositional practices” in American art today—there is, unfortunately, only one Paul Chan—and so this experiment of James J. Peterson is timely. But this artist goes in a direction that is totally counterintuitive, even quixotic. Like an Arizona St. Anthony, he retreats to the desert. He meditates, performs strange improvised rituals, documents it on video. The pieces in the show are relics of these rituals. The little paintings are strange and beautiful, as roughness and coffee stains and finger painting are paired with a miniaturist’s delicacy of hand. The paraphernalia of the old counterculture is here, but transformed, as if it had come back altered from another universe: magic buses and prayer flags and the palmate leaf of Cannabis sativa. These lost icons are all melancholy, like the toys of a dead relative found in an antique store. “Nauvoo Number” seems to be about Mormon founding myths: a golden ray from the clouds shines on the ground, and finely drawn lines spill out, lines reminiscent of Shaker devotional drawing—but there is a bit of Shock and Awe about the scene, too. The Shaker motif is repeated everywhere, and provides a serious and heartfelt counterpoint to the dopey clichés of hippiedom. You can sense the anger at state violence permeating everything like background radiation. A rose is at the same time a convincing piece of exploding ordnance. “Johnny Vase and Glasses,” a clear vase placed next to a pair of eyeglasses marked with red paint, hints not only at the soldier’s wound and funeral urn, but also at indifference and the attitude that the war is so remote, it might as well be fake. (David Mark Wise)
Through March 29 at Gescheidle, 1039 W. Lake.