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Low Life and High Times

Jesse Wiedel's paintings at Black Faun

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Jesse Wiedel paints moments when the down-home, corn-pone, howl-at-the-moon strain of crazy that burbles beneath the placid surface of Humboldt life rears its head. And he owns the niche. The 17th century genre painter Jan Steen made such a splash with his scenes of household mess that to this day in the Netherlands, any next-level scenario of domestic chaos can be referred to as "een huishouden van Jan Steen" — a Jan Steen house. In the same way, when aficionados of Wiedel's work encounter certain sights — like a dilapidated mobile home majestically ablaze in the Samoa dunes or a kid on a dirt bike doing donuts in the living room while wearing a ghoul mask from Scream, they text one another to say: "This totally looks like a Jesse Wiedel painting." It has happened to me.

I have some acquaintances who are familiar with the artist's work so I solicited their hot takes. What is it all about? "Mash-ups of banality in small-town America," one offered. "Kids getting caught up in some redneck shit," said another. "An illustrated companion to the Arcata police blog," perhaps. "Fallout from drug binges?" one queried. "The everyday Humboldt surreal," another summarized.  

There's a deliberate homeliness about these detailed yet roughly limned paintings and the small town ne'er-do-wells they document. Spending time with the paintings here can feel like reprising the stories from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio — if the strains of hypocrisy, perversion and bias already so plentiful in those connected tales of small-town American life circa 1919 had been juiced by an economic downturn and a massive upload of psychoactive drugs.

Wiedel invites us to rubberneck as meticulously described real places are galvanized by the surreal. "Liquor and Drugs" is sort of a backhanded tribute to that class of local citizens the Eureka Police Department has termed "grown men on bikes." A grown man on his absurdly tiny BMX bike is pedaling laboriously across the empty parking lot by N&S Liquor under a dirty gray Eureka sky when a pink clamshell-shaped monster rears up out of the cracked asphalt to fix its single, baleful eye upon him. We enter this unsavory dude's headspace and share his delirium. It's a little act of empathy that feels transgressive. #GMOBlivesmatter?

Some of Wiedel's protagonists are homeless; some are obviously doing a lot of drugs; many just appear to be young, bored and high. These characters are rarely up to any good but at least they usually get up to their shenanigans in the great outdoors, often under a blue sky dappled with fluffy, well-defined white clouds that look as if they had just been gently wafted from God's bong. Compositions develop out of the littered sidewalks, dilapidated marquees and wan landscape plantings of the strip malls that line Eureka's boulevards.

Subject matter will be familiar to viewers, from the Eureka Theater's grand 1939 Streamline Moderne facade to the anti-abortion billboard pairing an enormous baby with the caption "FRAGILE," which formerly enlivened the corner of Third and D streets downtown. Naturally Wiedel depicts this locally celebrated billboard in the later phase of its existence, after some anonymous hand scrawled beneath it the unsolicited but unforgettable dissenting opinion, "LIFE IS SHIT." There's a scuffle going on in the middle distance and a pizza-faced malcontent piloting a toddler-sized BMX bike in the foreground.

"Fragile" is one of the few paintings in this exhibition that showcase what you might call natural, serendipitous eruptions of the surreal. Others depict more frankly fantastical states. Elements of setting are doled out on a need-to-know basis in these works, the way the unconscious stage-manages dreams. Inexplicable encounters take place in stark, otherwise deserted settings, as they do in paintings by René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico.

The poet Lautréaumont described surreal situations as being "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine with an umbrella on an operating table." That's got nothing on the outrageousness of the scenario depicted in "Ride It Out," in which one hillbilly has already passed out in the mud while his companion, clad only in denim cutoffs, rides the enormous penile salamander that seems to have just erupted through an oddly positioned manhole cover, whooping and hollering like Slim Pickens as he goes down.

Those who want art to be a safe space should look elsewhere because Wiedel is more than willing to disturb our complacency. "Gas, Grass and Ass" depicts homeless people enjoying a morning smoke on a sofa in the alley. Behind them, the open mouth of the abandoned trailer where these people may be squatting can be seen. Someone has been using a wheelchair like a beast of burden to move what is presumably a heavy gasoline can. In the foreground, a man drops his pants to defecate. There's not much that's funny about the squalor — what Americans used to call "third world" levels of poverty — or about the Hobbesian existence evoked by the barter-currency triad Wiedel's title references.    

That said, most of the time we laugh with and at the people Wiedel paints. Wiedel's pictures don't express the personalized affinity for "freaks" that some documentarians of the margins have claimed, although they do exude a substantial degree of chill and an at times amused familiarity with their subjects' foibles. Renderings teeter on the verge of caricature but they manage not to sentimentalize or condescend. The Roman playwright Terence wrote, "I consider nothing of that which is human alien to me." If the paintings in this show could speak, they might concur.

The exhibition Pasquinade also features paintings in a surrealist vein by Shauna Burden and Tony Machado and runs March 4 to March 25 at Black Faun Gallery. Jesse Wiedel and Shauna Burden will give a free artist's talk on Saturday, March 11 at 3 p.m. Jesse Wiedel's band The Tweeners play in the gallery on Friday, March 24 from 8 to 9 p.m.

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