Scissors beats paper

Bill Braun, Sharon Maczko, Michael Oatman

Sharon Maczko and her painting    “Two Bits.”

Sharon Maczko and her painting “Two Bits.”

Photo By Nick Higman

Construction paper cutout horses stand in a field. Behind the horses are construction paper conifers and gently rolling hills. Over the horses’ heads stretches a thin tree branch covered with brightly colored flowers and songbirds. The picture lacks perspective and appears held together by pins and staples. It looks like the work of an inspired amateur, possibly a 9-year-old with a fourth grade art assignment, but a kid with an exceptional pair of scissors, a naturally keen eye for composition and an unusually precise sense of equestrian anatomy. It looks like a prized bit of refrigerator art belonging to one very lucky grandma.

But it’s a lie. Or, rather, it’s the best sort of artful deception. A closer examination, or a glance at the materials list, reveals that this is, in fact, an acrylic painting, “Pretty Foothill Scene” by Bill Braun. Braun’s paintings are works of trompe l’oeil, art meant to trick the eye. This is a case of one artform masquerading behind the ruse of another. Braun’s paintings are the rare works of art that simultaneously satisfy the aesthetic cravings of naïve art and of realism. What’s seemingly childish is actually stunningly professional.

Braun is one of three artists featured in Rock, Paper, Scissors, a new exhibition opening this week at Stremmel Gallery. The other artists are Michael Oatman and Sharon Maczko.

Oatman is a collage artist. He creates bizarre, satirical juxtapositions by carefully arranging disparate elements culled, primarily, from advertising artwork of the mid-20th century. His archive of images must be astounding. The artwork is not haphazard, but rather, calculatedly surreal. In “Oh, Right,” for example, a colony of beavers surrounds a group of totem poles. But are the beavers gnawing them down, destroying the totem poles for their own dam purposes, or are they artistic beavers, struck by a Kwakwaka’wakw inspiration?

That is the sort of odd question that Oatman’s works evoke. Artwork this intellectually engaging is rarely so funny. And the careful detail of the paper-cutting invites the viewer to ask another question: Is this guy sponsored by X-Acto?

Maczko creates watercolor still life paintings. If the idea of “watercolor still life paintings” strikes you as the domain of the dullest breed of Sunday painter, Maczko’s work, with its careful compositions and deep, saturated colors, will come as a pleasant shock.

“I set up each still life like a small movie set,” she says. The placement of objects within each piece suggests a unique narrative or character. “Still Life with Tapestry,” for example, includes a low-hanging lamp illuminating a smoking cigarette left in an ash tray, an empty beer bottle and a can of pork and beans. In the background, nearly falling off the wall, is a tapestry depicting a classical, Athenian scene.

“For me, it’s a man that lives alone, and he comes home from work too tired to make dinner, so he pops open a can of pork and beans and eats that with a beer and a cigarette … and it’s sort of a sad life, and then there’s this tapestry with this silly utopian scene,” says Maczko.

What’s most exciting about this exhibition is the way that these three artists’ works complement one another. In what is, essentially, an exhibition of still life and landscape art, each artist has found a new approach to a traditional form. Maczko’s works depict disparate objects in a way that suggests a narrative; Oatman’s works create contradictions by juxtaposing disparate narratives. Oatman’s works are collages that could almost pass as paintings; Braun’s works look like collages but are really paintings. Taken together, the work of these three artists engages the mind like a conceptual version of everybody’s favorite finger-pointing game.