This was the first time in history that the pairing of an artist and a chef resulted in guests eating five flavors of pie—herbs and apple, bread and chocolate, pumpkin chocolate chiffon, chocolate malt, and huckleberry buckle—with large drawings of syphilitic vaginas on the side. One cannot believe this was not intentional, but it was not. The artist didn't decide until the last moment to bring her symmetrical, legs-spread portraits of baroquely proliferative disease, adding to her portfolio of female hysterics. This mighty coincidence occurred in December at Canoe Social Club in the International District, during the third installment of The New Guard, a new dinner series that features one up-and-coming chef, artist, and musician each; moves venues every time; usually gathers three or four dozen people; and costs 50 bucks per person and makes no profits (it is the brainchild of Whitney Ricketts, who simply likes people, food, art, and music, and was inspired by Michael Hebb's analogous One Pots).
Yes, yes, very nice—twinkling candles and spices and society. But what about the syphilitic genitalia?
"Curators and critics never really stop to ask simply what artists in this city are doing," established sculptor Dan Webb once said to me. That's especially true when a room is full and festive. So I asked. Here are the artists of The New Guard so far.
Jason Hirata was bored making art about himself, so he tried to remove himself. He decided he'd make wood sculptures that had nothing to do with anything, and he wouldn't make them in any style that suited him or using any skills he'd honed. He'd just write objectives and execute them: make the wood touch the ceiling, don't raise it higher than x level, use the following pieces. But this presented a new truistic trap that killed his curiosity again: He could only create objectives based on what he knew he could already do. "The actual form was decided before I even started making it," he bemoans. He solved the problem by writing objectives and inviting other people to make the sculptures, which surprised him every time, and this resulted in increasingly elaborate objectives and some very odd and unexpected sculptures: a game. (Some of these are on view at Plasteel Frames on First Avenue South.)
The photographs with white painted marks that hung at December's New Guard dinner came from the same impulse: Hirata doesn't anticipate what a viewer expects. He makes art he wants to look at over time, and the results are layered but literal riddles, available to anyone who really looks. In a grid of six very similar photographs of an abandoned lawn at night, each one with blobs suspended in midair, are the blobs on the prints or were they there that night? And what is this nowhere place with blobs in midair, and why is someone there with a camera taking picture after picture with the flash creating barely noticeably different light each time? In other works, white paint is another source of light competing with the one in the photograph: What looks from afar like a groovy abstraction of thick wavy stripes and fat white glowing circles is actually blinds of paint over pictures of street lampposts. All the photographs came from a set Hirata shot while visiting Iceland a few years ago; he repurposed them because they were just hanging on his studio wall... boring him.
Next up, for his debut show at James Harris Gallery in February, he's making two identical sets of five line drawings done in ink made from sweat—his sweat and James Harris's sweat (a photograph on the artist's website shows the two jump-roping furiously). "I'm interested in how the work is a remnant of the artist's presence," Hirata says, "an effect of their artistic-ness." He doesn't know or need to know the answer to how exactly that works. As long as he's interested, he'll keep making interesting art.
It's hard to make a stronger impression than Amanda Manitach does with her drawings of syphilitic vaginas. Not that they're particularly bold. You can't tell what those whisper-delicate lines and shaded folds are depicting—the ruffles of an exotic cabbage?—until you read the titles, polite and simple things resembling classical music designations, like Four Petite Variations of the Genitalia of a Female Syphilitic. You can imagine this subject being introduced between women of refinement in a parlor, them all nodding until a certain point, when they start screaming their heads off.
Manitach's other two main subjects at the moment are hysterics and tongues. It's not an affectation. She grew up in rural northeast Texas in a Pentecostal family (her father was a pastor, and she attended Oral Roberts University before abandoning Christianity) that spoke in tongues on a regular basis, while contorting themselves into positions quite like those of photographed hysterics in institutions, all corseted and wild-limbed. Last year, Manitach's mother, a strong Pentecostal believer, died. "I'm in revolt against my maternal heritage in some ways," she says. The tongues she draws, whose undersides are grotesquely ruffled like her syphilitic labia, have the same curved arch as the epileptic spines of the hysterics. Lately she has begun sewing onto actual lamb's tongues, covering them with beads until they become shiny black clumps on the outside to match their decaying innards. She videotapes the process, then throws them out.
"I would love to be Alfred Jarry," the 19th-century French absurdist writer, she says. She's a Francophile. "I'm interested in the Hydropathes and the Incoherents, all those pre-Dada Dada people. I am obsessive, and all of my obsessions are pretty literary."
Along with the nihilism, she intends a dose of humor. Often she makes repeat drawings that change only slightly, so a series of them stutters, like a progression of cinematic frames, or like a posed photographic shoot that can't quite get the action right. The repetition is another form of the madness. Her next project involves her singing nonsense; let it ring.
Hair, wind, water, hair: "There's this looking for answers... but things being kind of wild," Gala Bent says. The hair has taken over the figures in her drawings; they're hair-people now, or storms of hair attached to earthbound barnyard legs, hairnimals. The works are just drawings—sometimes they spill out of wounds in walls, onto the floor, rather than staying within the frame of a piece of paper, but still, they're just marks on a surface—yet they've got texture, physicality, extension into another realm.
Bent works with three basic building blocks: planar shapes in saturated colors, hairlike graphite lines (which sometimes depict the hair of creatures whose eyes barely peep out), and stainy backgrounds. Each drawing is a parable demonstrated, like an illustration for an askew children's book: two restless heaps of hair connected by a braid, rolling around on wheels while trying to keep balance in Interlocutor; four arms sharing a shaggy head and wearing a shiny crown atop a lonely pink planet in Our Agreement. Cuteness is tempered by grossness and excess. Nothing is overtly female, but reference to femaleness appears everywhere: the braiding, the flirtation with children's illustration (she calls them "half-baked stories"), the visible influence of artists like Amy Cutler, Janine Antoni, Ann Hamilton, and Shahzia Sikander.
A tornado of shapes and hair—one of Bent's more abstract works—might refer to the artist herself. It's called She Works Hard for the Money. In addition to making her own work, Bent writes a blog about her dreams and influences and observations that's as tender and modest as her drawings (it's called Drifts and Scatters), she teaches at Seattle Pacific University, she does illustration for Asthmatic Kitty Records, and she and her husband, artist Zack Bent, have three young sons. Overwhelm is a regular state for her. No wonder everything she makes is like a growth that's gone a little too far and now wonders, both nervously and excitedly, what's next.
It's apt that certain images follow around the name Troy Gua as if they were corporate logos for his personal brand: The images are latter-day Warhols. And like brand-obsessive Warhols, they're an invitation to gaze into the soul of the soulless. Pop Hybrids is the name of Gua's series of slick paintings of candy-colored celebrity faces layered on top of each other. The Queen of England and Boy George look surprisingly alike, it turns out; three Michael Jacksons at three different ages do not. The Elton John Wayne mashes together the homo and the homophobe, and sets them in lavender tones, just in case you wondered which side Gua (a straight, married guy) sympathizes with.
Gua has been showing regularly. At Vermillion this summer was his exhibition about identity, Do You See Me?, and currently at Fulcrum Gallery in Tacoma he's showing some Pop Hybrids along with another, very different set of works drawing attention to the disfigurement of bodies in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, called Monument. A grid of restroom-style signs bearing bodies missing limbs hangs on a wall above sheets of reflective red Plexiglas on the floor; cut-up doll parts are featured in black-and-white photographs and, in a sculpture, contained in a warren of vitrines.
The artist keeps his imagery simple in part as a reference to plastic-fantastic mainstream culture and in part as a practical matter. "I want people who aren't artists to like my work," he says. "There are things I want to say, but at the same time, I want to make a living on it." Would Warhol appreciate the homage? Yes and no. Gua is still developing; too many of his sculptural and photographic works feel like a first idea in need of a few more rounds of cognition in order to push past cliché, and most of the Pop Hybrids are tidy fun, free of the menace beneath the surface (if there is such a place) in Warhol. But tidy fun can still be fun. Mao wears Mickey Mouse ears so well.
Details about the next New Guard dinner, on February 27 at the Fremont Abbey are at www.hopegrocery.com.