August is a disunited month in a college town. Summer's heat may have reached its peak, but minds are already shifting back to school. Many galleries take an August break to prepare for the fall season's September kickoff. However, this month two local businesses feature one-woman shows worth your while.
Cool off with dynamic visions of the Trinity Alps by watercolor specialist Lauren Lester at the Plaza Grill. Or ratchet up the heat by taking in Seana Burden's tiny, glittery paintings, which are squeezed salon-style into the narrow confines of Bang! Bang! Vintage in a claustrophobic but highly effective display. Why not do both? It's less than a five-minute walk, and the shows could not be less alike.
Lester's skillfully executed watercolors depict places in the Northern California wilderness. Titles indicate that most are places the artist has personally visited and sketched. Some depict points in the Trinity Alps or even more proximate peaks. There is one small, beautiful view of nearby Horse Mountain on a snowy morning. Quite a few works show scenic passages of the John Muir Trail, a route that winds some 200 miles through the wild heart of the Sierra Nevada. These are places far from any road, accessible only by several days' journey on foot. In other words, the views are genuinely rare.
These are emphatic watercolors. Lester uses a wide range of contrast, and she wields an active, energetic line. Brushstrokes that look like expressionistic passages of pigment at close range snap into focus and acquire a startling reality when seen from greater distance. Mountains seem dynamic, and their granite forms convey a coiled energy. They make you think about the potential force in the hearts of rocks. David Rains Wallace wrote that rocks in the Klamath Mountains are "athletic rocks, at times prankish," and you could say the same of the ones in these pictures.
Lester's compositions emphasize the weird, fleeting moments when our view of nature organizes itself into symmetry — a symmetry that always impresses us, deus ex machina, as though following some mysteriously ordained plan. She shows us peaks whose pyramidal forms are doubled in the glassy surface of the lakes beneath them and chevron-shaped cloud formations that replicate the shape of a river's two banks with uncanny precision. Her subjects reveal an affinity for sights that blur boundaries between the terms "nature" and "culture."
On H Street a block away, Seana Burden's work reflects an entirely different sensibility. Burden's show presents dozens of small- to medium-sized works executed in a raw, primitive technique, using glitter-saturated paint. Themes are drawn from teen and pre-teen girl culture; subject matter can be delightfully weird. Still lives represent ice cream cones and lollipops. Portraits depict beloved dogs and cats frolicking in tall grass, autumn leaves, and snow; sparkly cottages that would be too quaint for Thomas Kinkade bear titles like "Castle on a Cloud" and "Garden of Serenity." Characters from the ballet The Nutcracker play a major role in this fantasy world, as do Glinda the Good Witch, Cosette from Les Miserables, John Lennon, Sid Vicious and Joey Ramone. It's a cosmically misaligned, yet logical mash-up universe of good girls and bad boys.
Among the paintings, Burden has scattered manipulated photographs in personalized, Christmas-themed, poinsettia-patterned cardboard mats of the sort you can order from Walgreens or CVS. Burden smiles out of these photographs wearing her holiday best, arms wrapped around an impressive inventory of fantasy boyfriends whose common denominator is the fact that they are all dead actors and musicians. The titles are printed in florid script on the cardboard frames: "Seana Burden and Heath Ledger," "Seana Burden and Elvis Presley," "Seana Burden and Kurt Cobain," "Seana Burden and Michael Jackson," "Seana Burden and Joey Ramone." You get the picture. The piece de résistance features Burden posing in a red dress with her own mirror-image doppelgänger.
The show evokes a dream of eternal pre-adolescence that is as memorable as it is disturbing. It evokes the world of a creative, sheltered 12-year old on the cusp of adolescence — an age when ballerinas can still be heroines, while boyfriends remain romantic abstractions. The paintings can evoke the glittery celebrity portraits made by French photography duo Pierre et Gilles, and their over-the-top investment in decoration recalls the queer, Catholic art of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. However, when her work is contrasted with these other artists', Burden's fanhood appears less self-conscious, and thus arguably more perfect.
Is this camp? Do the paintings possess a sly self-critical dimension? I don't notice one. But I also don't know that this question is entirely answerable. Burden is a noted presence at local arts events, where she has been known to appear the way she does in her self-portraits: dusted with glitter, wearing slippers and a tutu, like a fairy ballerina. This performance seems like a way to publicize the artist's identification with the pictures' persona.
The art world's tradition of male privilege has meant that, historically, men's fantasy worlds were deemed deep, cool and worthy of exploration, while women's fantasy worlds have often been dismissed as narcissistic and trivial. But if you're prepared to take the intensely idiosyncratic personal mythologies of blue-chip artists like Matthew Barney seriously, then you should afford Burden the same consideration.
Both shows remain up throughout August.