Marion Peck
Roq la Rue, 374-8977
Through Oct 3.

Francesca Sundsten
Davidson Galleries, 624-7684
Through Sept 27.

In Marion Peck's precisely imagined world, a still life bristles with actual life. Each object has been given its own face: The peaches are cherub cheeked, with little baby snub noses; a tankard has the sleepy eyes and wide mouth of a whale; a glass decanter is, as you would expect, sort of blank looking. The cheese (I think it's some kind of hard cheese--it may be bread) has been broken down by an unseen hand into smaller pieces and crumbs, and each piece, each crumb, has a pointy-nosed face; each grape, both green and red, instead of a face has a single heavy-lidded eye. This setup, to me, suggests a bit of paranoid watchfulness, and also promises a weird and not entirely benevolent sort of infinity. The benevolence of Peck's world is definitely up for grabs.

So it is that Peck both skewers and loves the genre painting, the kind of painting you're as likely to see in Value Village as in the Rijksmuseum. She does so in ways that are directly grotesque (the kittens with three eyes, the snowman with nipples and a scepter), but sometimes only quietly perverse. Since 1991, Peck has shown at the strait-laced Davidson Galleries, where her work--there among the serious abstract and figurative work--acquired a sort of gratuitous weirdness. Now at Roq la Rue (where the weird is everyday currency), it feels, conversely, more relaxed and expansive. The nervous feathering of Peck's last work has mostly disappeared, and the figures that inhabit these new paintings are serenely rendered, more crisp, newly authoritative.

Her Wiener Venus is shifting parts strange and lovely: a naked pinup girl reclining on a day bed overlooking a rather bare landscape. She's equal parts black-velvet painting (breasts pointing toward the sky) and Northern Renaissance nude. There doesn't seem to be much that's unusual about the figure until by degrees you notice how long she is, how her torso is as stretched and narrow as if she were made of taffy, as if she had been pulled out to accommodate the dimensions of the canvas. It's a distortion that echoes back through art history, to Michelangelo's Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, lying back and reaching forward to touch God's finger in a position that is actually anatomically impossible (go ahead, try it), to the elder Lucas Cranach's swollen-bellied, distended figures. In this case, you're meant to see how you both do and do not accept the distortion, how you dwell on rather than accept the effect, but at the same time enjoy it: seeing, and then not seeing, and then seeing it again. The shock of the Venus' body remains, through long viewing, new.

This is a different brand of humor from Lady Henrietta Swanneshald, Mistress of Ethelred the Unready, (later to become Queen Charles of Wessex), a classic oval portrait in which the consequences of noble inbreeding become quite obvious--although that Lady Henrietta's face is the same perfect oval as the frame has the sting of a little in-joke. The point is that Peck so neatly balances irreverence and history, so that her paintings have lasting power rather than the swift one-two punch of mere mockery.

It's interesting to contrast Peck's work with paintings by Francesca Sundsten, which use a similar surreality toward much different ends. Sundsten populates her paintings with animal/human hybrids--a pregnant woman with the head of a deer, a neatly coifed woman with the body of some kind of tree-dwelling beast--that seem to posit a new mythology, perhaps a human psychology driven by our most animalistic traits. Rendering these creatures with near-photographic precision suggests that they might possibly exist, or that the difference between existing in art and existing in flesh is minimal.

But this authority is undermined by portentousness, the sense that this mythology takes itself too seriously (even Matthew Barney, after all, knows how to poke fun at himself). This becomes clear enough when you look at Sundsten's excellent drawings, which, in their faint skittishness, have retained some humor, some uncertainty, the sense that once the dog with the lady's head goes skittering off the paper, she's gone forever.

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