Approached through fog and driving rain one recent afternoon, the unassuming Westhaven Center for the Arts rose out of the mist like a rustic scholar's retreat. Inside, a colorful blitz of paintings galvanized the space.
The tiny, somewhat out-of-the-way and absurdly charming "nonprofit gallery and grassroots community center" has been serving artists from the immediate local community since 2001 from its perch on a steep hillside among the redwoods, with a view of waves breaking at Moonstone Beach below. This month it hosts Honorable Mention, a showcase of work by students enrolled in honors and advanced painting classes at Humboldt State University. The works on display run the gamut of contemporary styles, from realism to colorful pop-naïvete to illustration saturated in pop culture.
These paintings are vastly different from one another. But as a group they feature a shared clarity of purpose and, often, a level of commitment to craft that reflects well on HSU painting professors Gina Tuzzi and Teresa Stanley. The exhibition is all over the place, but it's quite likeable.
Victor Feyling's mixed-media piece "Seven Days in the Sun" is comprised entirely of origami folds of paper in luscious colors that grade from petal pink and cream through fuchsia, violet and midnight blue. The surface is beguiling — at close range, the eye romps across an unpredictably undulating field comprised of overlapping angled planes.
Becca Baldwin's cool, thoughtful and suggestively titled "Lovely?" centers a rosette of skillfully painted trompe l'oeil satin scraps on a panel of blonde wood. The painted fragments grade imperceptibly into actual three-dimensional bits of fabric toward the center. The painting resists easy interpretation but the lustrous fabrics and muted pastel tones carry bridal connotations.
There are surreal visions here that fuse the decorous with the weird, like Leslie Padilla's meticulous watercolor and gouache illustrations. There are sarcastic improvisations on pop culture, like Shane Donaldson's sparely painted depiction of 1960s entertainer Tiny Tim dying for our sins on an aluminum cross. There are meditations on body image, like Angie Allen's nude study of a heavy model against a richly patterned backdrop. Alyssa Newton's moody urban landscape shows bar row on a quiet night, with neon lights flashing through a bank of fog. Danielle Carlson's seascape "Obsession" multiplies the perfect wave times five and stacks the long images horizontally, as though they were filmstrip frames.
Grace Indigo Franchini's trippy acrylic diptych "Altered State of Celebrate" mines a rich vein of earth-toned 1970s surrealism for the festival set, hilariously juxtaposing two colorful characters who would fit in well around these parts: a white-robed, six-eyed, vaguely E.T.-shaped guru and a headless woman whose facial features have relocated to her nude torso.
Juan Salazar's untitled painting depicts a young boy who cradles a baby on a riverbank; on the river's other side, nuclear reactors and refineries belch out toxic substances that blight the land. Salazar's picture is a meditation on environmental devastation and the spoliation of indigenous peoples' lands in his native Peru.
It appropriates elements of the composition of a famous painting from a much earlier time — "The Tempest," usually attributed to the Renaissance artist Giorgione. Both feature similarly posed figures crouching by a stream in a landscape. Both figures hold a baby in arms while an ominous storm brews in the background.
In Salazar's painting, Giorgione's lush landscape has been reduced to basics. The young mother of the Renaissance painting has disappeared. In her place, a brown-skinned boy sits alone on a riverbank, holding a small baby. The young boy's face is only visible in part, while the baby's face is not visible at all. But both figures are drawn with a delicate acuity that compels our empathy, allowing us to see tenderness in their embrace.
Honorable Mention packs a lot of content into a relatively small space, and it includes more engaging paintings than I can enumerate here. Walking through the show can be equal parts demanding and rewarding. Standing in the middle of this space, surrounded by visual clamor, you feel immersed in creative foment — as though artistic identities are coalescing around you in real time.
The show as a whole made me think about the significance of contemporary art's signature stylistic eclecticism. Critic Nicolas Bourriaud argued 10 years ago that the metaphor of remix is one of the few that can be meaningfully applied as a descriptor across the entire spectrum of contemporary art. Modernism's emphasis on innovation has been replaced by a concept-driven aesthetics of recombination. Artists are now called upon to manipulate their citations skillfully and to curate their reference points with great precision. In some ways, it is a lot like contemporary fashion. The styles of decades past are recycled in a sort of continuous churn, but forward progress has stalled — or perhaps it's just that the notion of progress has lost some of its relevance.
Honorable Mention shows at the Westhaven Center for the Arts through April 24. Gallery hours are Friday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Call 677-9493 or visit www.westhavencenter.org.