Art by the foot

Chico fills up tiny canvases in Small Works group show

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Small Works shows through Aug. 31.
Chico Art Center
450 Orange St.

“All are welcome to participate. Collage, assemblage, textile, wire sculpture, paper clay, origami, found objects, you name it! Buy a canvas at our front desk to participate.” It’s hard to imagine a more egalitarian invitation to make art and have it shown in a gallery.

Small Works, Chico Art Center’s annual jury-free exhibition/fundraiser, offered an open opportunity for artists to take part, so long as their art remained within the boundaries of the 12-by-12 canvas that the center sold for $20 each in lieu of a standard entry free.

And, once again, it worked. The gallery is lined with dozens of square-foot pieces. On a white pedestal just inside the entrance, Erin Wells’ mixed-media sculpture, “Talk to the Hand,” rises up out of its multicolored canvas base and welcomes visitors with a life-size hand with glass eyeballs on the tip of each digit and another gazing out from the palm. Thumb-tacked to the base is an enigmatic card that reads, “Poke,” next to an arrow pointing to a photo of an eyeball. A surreal juxtaposition of existential angst and slapstick humor.

Fantasy of a more gentle sort imbues Mariam Pakbaz’s “Casa Menta,” an acrylic painting depicting a Victorianesque mansion perched in a tree. The layered gray and green tints of the trees against a soft-blue sky are complemented by the house’s pink- and red-toned roofs and chimney. Pakbaz’s playful vision brings to mind an illustration from a work of children’s fiction.

Another work I found particularly appealing was Claudia Dussault-Howell’s gourd-based multimedia piece, “Kheper, ‘He Who is Coming into Being.’” The focal point of its mandala-like design is a turquoise-colored clay scarab evoking the Egyptian god Khepri, whose manifestation as a beetle symbolizes transformation and metamorphosis. The artist’s design—in shades of brown and gold within a royal-blue square—places the scarab at the center of geometric elements that suggest both inward and outward movement within the prescribed boundaries of an inner circle. Surrounding it all is a black square outline breached on all four sides by appliqued “gateways,” perhaps signifying that no boundaries can ever be completely sealed and that change is always possible.

For “Desert Dream,” Carolyn McLeod filled her small canvas with a repeated motif of cacti, blue birds, dragonflies and butterflies creating—in simply drawn but exquisitely shaded and colored forms—a very serene world of imagination. The effect of the landscape, with its round yellow sun just topping the horizon line, is dreamlike and playful, reminiscent of the works of so-called “naive” artists such as Henri Rousseau or Grandma Moses.

Thoughtfulness and imagination also permeate Reality Thornewood’s found-object assemblage, “Hope,” in which a pair of rusted wrought iron oak leaves, a piece of driftwood, a wood ball on a brass rod, a crumpled piece of newspaper, a single earring, and two bent silver forks are arranged in the form a small junkyard angel.

Far from angelic, but certainly joyful, “Madame Butterfly,” Judith Croy’s papier-mâché and found-object sculpture, delivers its titular character bare-breasted, holding a butterfly in one hand over her casually crossed legs, while her tousled blonde coiffure accents generously blue-shaded eyes and a ruby-lipped mouth that appears on the verge of song.

With so many pieces, ranging from the straightforward and realistic to the outrageous and/or abstract, this show is a great representation of the vast range of the perspectives, motivations and methods of a community of artists. The works might be “small,” but the cumulative effect is huge and heartening.