Mao exhibitor

Hong Zhang, Laura Ball and Mark Fox Morgan at b. sakata garo

Hong Zhang, “Three Drawers #1,” mixed media, 2001.

Hong Zhang, “Three Drawers #1,” mixed media, 2001.

The multi-artist introduction show is one of those funny things the art world puts together, primarily as a way to toss emerging talent before the public for viewing. Sometimes these shows are difficult to pull off, given the variety of work often on display. Nevertheless, they’re worth your attention.

This month’s program at b. sakata garo offers such a show, which features three emerging local artists whose work seems quite disparate at first glance. However, upon closer viewing, the show evinces a strong contextual theme that links the works outside a merely formalist agenda. It’s fun to try to figure that theme out.

Hong Zhang’s mixed-media work on paper exquisitely balances the formal and contextual. Although beautiful, adeptly rendered and using gorgeous color, Zhang’s work creates an engaging platform for other important messages about socio-political issues—ethnicity, religion, politics, good old human relationships. Besides Zhang’s sheer mastery of technique, and among the layered meanings, perhaps most compelling may be the artist’s interest in the delicacy of ethnic identity, which manifests in imagery that engages both Eastern and Western ideas such as mass consumerism through iconic images—a fabulous Chanel shoe, American greenbacks with images of Chinese officials instead of George and Abe—that are funny and critical. The reinterpretation of Chinese social realism through images of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung speaks with neither pro nor con vehemence, opting instead toward an ambivalence of values.

Laura Ball’s mostly figurative oil paintings depict aggressive females on the prowl, sans the company of men, with a few still-life paintings of candies and piles of flip-flops. Although beautifully painted, the taffy paintings and thongs don’t quite compete with the culturally charged images of feminine identity within a decidedly masculine posture and lead us to believe that girls really aren’t (and probably never were) wimps and are disinterested in such behavior. In fact, dealing with issues of feminine beauty is a very current topic among women painters, and Ball’s paintings reference such young female artists who have hit the big time as Lisa Yuskavage, as well as internationally recognized local artist Wayne Thiebaud—under whom Ball studied at UC Davis.

Mark Fox Morgan’s mixed-media collages are the least representational of the three artists’ works shown, but still reference contemporary culture. One of the most compelling aspects of the collages is that the work is delightfully deceiving, very much like culture and its production. Although fabricated from paper, it seems hard—like old scraps of metal that show the vestiges of time through rust and decay, or like post-apocalyptic cave walls. The aging effect, colors and technique are formally engaging without losing a cultural backbone, which manifests through sparse iconic line drawings of familiar objects we all know—bicycles, bottles, even text. These help the work transcend mere decoration to reach a realm of critique on how we interpret stuff around us. It’s not unlike how 30,000-year-old cave paintings from Lascaux, France, depict animals and other magical objects that become a part of our lives.

In short, here are three young artists who are not out just to please our eyes with good formalism (i.e., pretty stuff), but who are obviously thinking about how we as a culture are deciding to live our lives. The choices for this month’s introduction show at the sakata are insightful and are well worth your time.