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Curtis Otto's retrospective



The year just started and already you have a mission: Don't skip this month's Arts Alive! Whether due to post-holiday fatigue or icy weather, January is the most neglected of the monthly art-music-social-appreciation events. But Friday's Arts Alive! offers, in addition to the usual collection of fine arts and enjoyable bands, a chance to experience the work of Humboldt legend Curtis Otto.

The retrospective exhibit of Otto's work currently at the Sewell Gallery is called "Dialectic," a concept acutely suitable to Otto's work, which is about getting to the bottom of things through exchanging ideas. While revered for his realism, what has people talking more recently is his exploration into more abstract imagery. These ways of looking at subjects from opposite sides, often incorporated into the same paintings, is exactly what triggers the dialogue that, ideally, leads viewers to epiphany.

Take a look at his "hipstamp 300" painting. Six versions of women's butts adorn fictional U.S. postage. While variations on the theme of nude women have been a mainstay throughout art history, what makes these interesting is the journey on which Otto takes the viewer. At first, the painting seems simply comical. But the beautiful lines and skillful rendering elevate the nudes into the fine art world. The Expressionistic colors excite. By eliminating the rest of the body, the subject matter and the background share the space almost equally, shifting the painting into a more abstract zone. We nearly settle into the notion that what we're seeing is high art, but the stamp motif turns things back around — stamps are to be licked, after all, so we're now back to objectification and humor. We've come full circle and are, ideally, both amused and full of admiration. It's classic Otto.

In contrast, "Mill Stacks" has a serious tone. The colors are darker. The pulp mill looms in the background, billowing smoke sideways in what must be a heavy wind. In the foreground, a hard-hatted worker appears to be leaving. Although closer to us, his face is less defined than the mill buildings in the distance. The vibe is ominous. But a longer look lets the playfulness of the colors emerge. The sky is yellow, green and blue. The ground, red, orange, pink, white, green and more. They look haphazard at first, the colors swiped onto canvas, the vigorousness of Otto's brushstrokes suggesting all the care of a crazed Navy seaman swabbing a deck. But the longer you gaze at the work, the more everything comes together into a symphonic harmonization of beauty. Madman or genius? Opinions will vary — and if all goes according to plan, out of those opinions will come conversation.

Dialectic runs through Jan. 25 at Sewell Gallery Fine Art, 423 F St., Eureka.

Also of note

After absorbing the Otto retrospective, wander down to the William Thonson Gallery for an exhibit of Suk Choo Kim's "Big Pictures." How big? How about 15 feet? Kim has spent years creating large-scale photography, taking hundreds of images and blending them together to create huge prints that are produced on a coffin-sized printer. Step back for a broad view of the landscapes, cityscapes and street views of Humboldt, China, France, Patagonia, the Himalayas, Mexico, the U.K. and the Andes. Step in again and see the fine details captured in every corner of the images — details that add to the complexity of the work in an intriguing way.


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