What first sprang to mind upon encountering Christian Duran's New Growth, 2005, was a landscaper I once saw driving along a highway in Detroit who had stenciled "The Marquis de Sod" on his rusted panel van.
Looming quixotically in the South Gallery at Ingalls & Associates, the cryptic yet palpably undulating sculpture casts a tenebrous shadow over the artist's "Apparitions" exhibit. It hints at man's tenuous relationship with nature and has the discomfiting feel of a site once used for ancestor worship or a village massacre, now overgrown with fauna.
New Growth, a weird mixed-media and vegetable lifework, appears to consist of an upended wheelbarrow-load of battleship gray ceramic human skulls intertwined with naturally sculptural pencil trees that snake eerily toward the spectator from within this tangle of orifices.
Strangely enough, the kink factor provokes an overwhelming desire to touch, to fondle its nodes, caress its valvate growths, linger upon its peduncles, languor in its auricles, delve deeply into its decussate parts. In short, place one's finger on its occult eroticism.
"The plant's sap is supposed to be noxious," warns Chris Ingalls, gallery director. Actually the controversial bush has become somewhat of a centerfold in scientific circles. Primitives once tamed Euphorbia tirucalli's caustic goo to ward off mosquitoes and kill rats.
Western medicine cautions the plant is potentially carcinogenic and eye contact with its sap could lead to blindness. In India, Asia, and Africa, pencil tree pimps counter that its latex dressing has been benignly used to burn off warts, cauterize syphilitic ulcers, remove tumors, and treat hemorrhoids.
Also known as the petroleum plant, because it produces a hydrocarbon substance similar to gasoline, the skin-searing succulent is being studied by Petrobras, Brazil's national petroleum company, as an alternative fuel source. Experts estimate an acre of cultivated plants can yield up to 50 barrels, each one costing between three and ten dollars.
"Wow, I didn't know that," the artist exclaims. "But during the opening, some old Cuban guy warned me to be careful when touching it because he thought it might be poisonous." Duran chanced on the Gumby-complexioned shrub solely for aesthetic reasons. "The line drawing quality of it and how it branches off like a stick figure is clearly related to my paintings."
He also admits finding inspiration in supernatural phenomena. "The concept behind my work is kind of spiritual and related to human and natural life tying together in a grander scheme."
The imagery in his paintings seems harvested from the pages of Gray's Anatomy or episodes of the BBC's Charlie's Garden Army and rendered with a certain gothic splendor. His palette ranges from muddy, cracked-pepper earth tones to shimmering amethyst, turquoise, amber, and carnelian hues, conveying the ornate richness of antique Persian silks or Florentine brocades. The artist often mixes ground copper dust and driblets of silver and gold powder into his paint to heighten the luster.
His exquisitely detailed works on paper teem with complex patterns of arteries, veins, root systems, and those subcutaneous circulatory thickets that nurture both human and plant life. From brambles of thistles, dandelions, aquatic ferns, or bronchial alveoli, solitary anthropomorphic figures emerge. Often -- as in the pieces Medial, 2005 and Skinless #3, 2005 -- the mutated hybrids appear with arms outstretched in supplication, suggesting spiritual sacrifice.
"That's one of the reasons I named the show 'Apparitions,'" Duran observes. "I think there's an unspoken spiritual dialogue that attracts people to look for its signs." He expresses curiosity about crowds flocking to see a vision of Jesus in a melting ice cream cone, and muses over several examples of the pseudomiraculous informing his work.
"Christ on a slice of toast and the image of the Virgin in an oil slick under a bridge in Chicago both drew hordes of people. I find that stuff fascinating, and that's why my figures sometimes appear religiously anguished," imparts Duran.
For those who have followed the artist's evolution in recent years, his first solo gallery show reveals a meditative intensity and concentration on detail, not to mention a blossoming of his art-making process. Duran is proving himself adept at burrowing under the skin.
In the North Gallery at Ingalls, conceptual artist Pedro Velez presents "Rasf Uni Vas Ur Falut," a multimedia sideshow featuring photography, sculpture, and large-scale collages.
Velez is known for his bogus exhibition announcements and for curating imaginary exhibits meant to challenge contemporary society's idea of tastemaking. His intent is to provoke debate and raise questions about meaning, morality, and wishful thinking.
Contemporary art novices trying to make sense of his show might feel swept under a tent-pole attraction of colossal scope. "Is this clown's aim here to orchestrate a hoax exhibit?" they might ask. Even Velez acknowledges his works appear slapdash but also somewhat contrived.
A wall of collages -- billed as "Altered book pages & flyers for fake exhibitions" and pitched at $300 a pop -- defies credibility. A collage, Rasf (Hope), 2004-05, featuring the black-and-white page 85 torn from the Illustrated History of Las Vegas, spotlights Wayne Newton and Bob Hope in dapper monkey suits babbling into a microphone in front of a glittery backdrop. Velez turned it into an artwork by scrawling the letters RASF on top in graffiti-style block letters.
Another in the series, Victory (Wolf), 2004, ripped from Aunt Louisa's Book of Fairy Tales, shows a fanged and yellow-eyed drooling wolf scratching at a window jamb. Underneath the line, "Open the door, my dear little kids," Velez simply added a stenciled row of black stars.
My favorite is Epilepsy, 2005, a page yanked from the artist's private high school (Disciples of Christ Academy) yearbook, where a sophomore Velez, sporting a powder-puff mop and caterpillar brows, leers like a chucklehead. The artist scribbled "Ni Tu Ni Nadi" (translation: "Neither You Nor Anybody") in an upper corner of this self-referential piece. It was refreshing to see he doesn't take himself too seriously.
"I use these collages as a hook to provoke a reaction," says Velez. "On opening night I was approached by a Puerto Rican girl who felt I was being a condescending joker and trying to fool the public. She told me, 'I get what you're saying but I still don't like the work,' and I'm cool with that," Velez remarks.
Deciding whether Velez is a multimedia mandarin on top of his game or the class wisenheimer who needs to take a time-out and reconsider a lazy assignment demands, as Chris Ingalls points out, an immersion into his process. "Pedro Velez's work is highly conceptual and might appear facile because he applies disparate techniques and incorporates ready-made materials like industrial banners with grommets and book pages to convey a message," Ingalls says.
Pairing Velez's work with Duran's begs the question: Did the curator match these exhibits to raise comparisons in terms of approach to workmanship?
"It was fortuitous," adds Ingalls. "Christian is extremely methodical and meticulous, with a spiritual and intellectual cast to his work. Pedro's methodology is to provoke thought, incorporating diverse strategies. I find it interesting, as someone who appreciates art, how their works contrast," Ingalls comments. "But these are two distinctly separate exhibits."
Velez's Pujwpbdbanr Fault Leran, 2005 is a large-scale, almost nonsensical graphite-on-wall drawing with a highly spontaneous vibe. He tweaks it into a collage by slapping a large dog-eared photograph onto the middle of the mural.
The photo, Emmi Mathis in a Bathtub Full of Bubbles by Melissa Shubeck, Curated by Pedro Velez, 2002 -- try saying that with a mouthful of marbles -- displays a teenage, Siamese cat-eyed girl with a wan smile, lounging in a cast-iron tub while covered with suds.
Reasonably, can the potential eyesore, depending on John Q. Spectator's opinion, pose a valid argument for squandering valuable gallery space?
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"That photo is part of a series called Las Chicas Lindas de Pedro Velez," Velez offers. "The photo works well because the model is 'cute' and not beautiful. My mom is cute, so is the girl, but sometimes people don't grasp the difference when discussing issues of beauty. That's why I juxtaposed the photo over the mural and next to the 'beautiful' Benetton models, to make that point." Fair enough, one thinks.
Velez's punch-line conceptualism, designed to rake over notions of taste, hits the mark with his piece Puerto Rican-Jewish, 2005, a Benetton banner the artist found in New York City. He attached scraps of old paintings and a post card (also found) with the image of a Puerto Rican flag, superimposed by the Star of David, onto the banner.
Chris Ingalls pointed at a Benetton bimboy plastered across the piece and said, "During the opening, a lady told me he was the most gorgeous creature she had ever seen. Funny, I thought, the schlep looks like an anorexic, shaggy-maned Dolph Lundgren to me."