Ross Martens, Darren Oberto and Brent Houston have worked together at the Alley Gallery in Evanston for years, where ideas and influences on subject matter and color palette have bounced between them regularly. “Beautiful Beasts” marks their first group show outside of Evanston’s cafes.
Each artist approaches the theme “Beautiful Beasts” uniquely. Considering how to make the grotesque palatable, Oberto creates masterful oil paintings of industrial smoke stacks and landfills, and his eloquent “Self Portrait Inspired by Estee Lauder’s ‘Knowing,’” in which he’s painted himself in a gas mask, seems prescient. Capturing the beauty that often resides in the ugliness of modern living, Houston notices everything from political and religious iconography to architecture, deconstructing symbols and painting the eerie silence of the no-fly period after 9-11 in “Goliath II,” haunting with its gray-blue emptiness and grounded perspective. Levity emerges with Martens’ undeniably charming photographs of rubber-pencil-topper monsters blown up to frightening proportions in electric hues, playful and exquisite shadowboxes of handmade tiny galleries and topiary gardens with enough vivid detail to yield equally compelling photographs of their own.
All three artists leap across their own personal landscapes of experience in the world and often arrive at similar points, especially Oberto and Houston, who display amazing understanding of the deceptively lean, David Hockney-like shorthand of visual language. Where Martens strays most from the literal is also where he’s most akin to Oberto and Houston, in his photo series “Hall of Great Men,” showing close-ups of beards soiled with whatever their owners just ate. They are as disturbing as the giant black glittery “Escalade” by Oberto and the snapshot reality of Houston’s incredible and tragic “5.5” series, small disparate images which unify a concise picture of pop culture confusion. Beauty manifests with these artists’ acceptance of the humanity in our beastliness. (Damien James)
Through February 27 at the Almquist Gallery, 310 Green Bay Road, Winnetka.