The cruelest month

April’s art confronts mortality

John Pundt’s “Till Death Broke her Heart,” at the Toyroom Gallery.

John Pundt’s “Till Death Broke her Heart,” at the Toyroom Gallery.

In this month, nothing is certain but death and taxes. The latter is nuisance enough; let’s not talk about it now that the joke’s been made. But the former—suddenly conspicuous against the backdrop of seasonal bloom, like an obscene, belabored April Fools’ joke—nags for attention. Or so several local galleries would have it.

It’s not just that mortality has proven an immortal subject. There are immediate practical considerations, too. For one thing, in the same weekend as our Second Saturday, there is to be an official day of Holocaust Remembrance. Hence the Elliott Fouts Gallery’s special month-long selection of paintings and sculptures by Robert Sutz, whose father’s family was murdered in a concentration camp. A longtime commercial artist based in Arizona, Sutz has spent his past seven years bearing retrospective witness—rendering life masks from the faces of Holocaust survivors and painting the brutal scenes they describe to him.

The paintings are frank and damning and unapologetically deathly. They suggest the urgency of stolen snapshots: Bodies lie akimbo and trodden by jackboots in the blood-smeared earth, or dangle in public view like frozen cuts of meat, or arch with the sudden bright snap of death from an electric fence or a bullet in the back.

Robert Sutz’s “Boy Shot in the Back,” at Elliott Fouts Gallery.

Sutz works in quick broad strokes, his favored watercolor-gouache swab sometimes leaving compositional elements indistinct; the scenes scan in a shimmering blur, as if witnessed through tears. His masks, of course, tell a different story. They could not exist but for direct contact with survivorship. They are stoic. They are not faces of death, but of life.

So it is with “Traces,” Massachusetts artist John Magnan’s pile of wax castings of his wife’s bald head. The most ostensibly chilling of the works in Magnan’s Body Image/Body Essence show, displayed through the 27th at the Library Gallery Annex at CSUS, “Traces” might evoke a holocaust, too, were it not presented in such an intimate and affirming context.

What Magnan intends is an ongoing sculptural dialogue with the ovarian cancer that killed his wife, Mary, in 2006—and with people whose lives the disease still affects. His area of specialty is the havoc wrought on women’s self-image by the baldness resulting from chemotherapy.

Take “Day 17,” for instance: It’s a mirror, in memory of another chemo patient Magnan met who lost all her hair at once one day in the shower. “Squeezing the water out, she placed the ball of hair in the sink,” he writes, “and then shuddered to realize what she would see in the mirror when she looked up.” These are brave and forceful works, all the more moving for their aversion to sentimental revisionism.

John Magnan’s “Traces,” at the CSUS Library Gallery Annex.

And yet, what would grief be without sentimental revisionism? Less bearable, probably. Consider ’Twixt Two Worlds, or The Uninvited Guest: A Magician at the Séance, now showing at UC Davis’ Richard L. Nelson Gallery through May 20. Organized by the writer and magician Ricky Jay, this show recalls an era during which illusionists claimed their bailiwick in the frontier between life and lifelessness. That caused some tension with the mediums who’d already staked out the same territory—not to mention their audiences.

“In the last decades of the 19th century and on into the earlier years of the 20th,” an introductory placard reads, “there was a widespread interest in spiritualism, and in particular, the notion of communicating with the dead. This spawned a large industry of people taking advantage of the naïve and the bereaved.”

How beguiling, this exhibit’s illustrated posters of proud magicians removing their own heads or presiding over small orchestras of disembodied devils. Or its many choice photos, blurry with phony “materializations” of restless spirits—including one from 2005 in which Jay himself appears, with a ghost hovering next to him.

The highlight, though, is the slideshow over which, in a recording, Jay reads Harry Houdini’s brassy debunking of various spiritualists’ tricks. From this we are meant to consider the gullibility on which that bygone enterprise relied: Oh how our technology and our wisdom have improved since then. But the anxiety of death still will not abate.

Arguably, it worsens. The Toyroom Gallery’s Time Capsule: Famous Last Works assembles several artists, of varied training and talents, around curator and participant Kevin E. Taylor’s request “to explore the looming possibility of humankind’s extinction.” It’s a rich display, in which allusions to the permanent vacancy of human skulls, among other motifs, abound.

Patrick Segui’s “Meanwhile at the Front,” at the Toyroom Gallery.

Taylor’s own small painting, “Our Worst Fears Are Fabricated,” plainly depicts a hockey goalie’s mask against a dark background. To anyone who grew up on Friday the 13th movies, it’s that old gonzo, media-made reaper’s image, the icon of one generation’s earliest shared understanding that death is absurd and unfairly predatory. The artist’s presentation shows a kind of direct acceptance, but his title encourages broad and detached pronouncements—or at least a registration of what little actually lies behind that mask.

Taylor and his group clearly are younger artists, evidently not yet abashed by mortality like the originators of these other death-driven exhibits. They’re still able to affect irony with what seems like impunity—but this isn’t to say they lack earnestness, and in fact that contrary impulse gives their work its power. It’s in the airy nonchalance with which that skeleton in Patrick Segui’s arresting diorama, “Meanwhile at the Front,” accommodates a cigarette among his bony fingers. Or in the refined, terrible whimsy of John Casey’s six shrunken-headish figures hanging so decorously on the opposite wall. Or, emerging from the mist of decorative curlicues in John Pundt’s ghostly silkscreen, “Till Death Broke her Heart,” in the pony-mounted young girl with ribbons in her hair and on her heart-embroidered dress but without any flesh on her face. That work, by the way, is said to take its ferrous tint from the inclusion of the artist’s own blood.

For all its instinctively Boschian disposition, Time Capsule perhaps wisely leaves one question unanswered: Is it any consolation to know you’ll be survived by your art if you also know that nobody else will be around to appreciate it? One thing’s for sure: After Saturday’s closing reception, it’s all over.