"Explosion in a curly factory" is the first thing you see. The words are written curly-cursive with corkscrewing arms of octopuses and coiled snakes spiraling around them. Wheeee! The whole world is resonating in the same gleeful key. It's a painting by Ginny Ruffner, the most irrepressible spirit in Seattle art, whose other new pieces include a shark bumping its nose on a multicolored water balloon, a leaf dreaming of pretty flowers, and a daisy with a different pattern on every petal in a swarm of "yeses."
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Circle back past "Explosion in a curly factory"—wheee!—to another show in the back room where, front and center, there are the bloody stumps of a woman's freshly amputated legs. Her mouth is open in a scream, but it is not a woman's face, it is the face and head of a monkey-wolf whose flesh is being melted off. This is called Puberty. It's by Doug Jeck. Ruffner and Jeck are sharing the Jekyll and Hyde–iest double bill in art history. Wheee!
Ruffner, a native Southerner guided by mischievous humor, has built in Ballard a home/studio as ripe and teeming as her art. She's been the subject of a documentary and a retrospective, and she created the 27-foot-tall potted tulip, daisy, and bluebells in a pot across the street from ACT Theater downtown. The Urban Garden (2011) is meant to be whimsical, but it is five tons and makes me feel oppressed.
Over the years, Ruffner has sculpted big, lively crashes of metal and glass twisted together and around each other. Her new works are more delicate. Small details are painted onto flameworked glass sculptures of flowers, animals, and clouds that you could hold in your hands. Clear glass is used sparingly, to temper rabid color. The pieces on paper feel especially fresh, made by transferring images in surrealish collaged arrangements. She then paints, draws, or writes in the white spaces, or leaves the spaces blank around the playful image puzzles. A series of straightforward botanical-illustration-style transfers on textured paper is banal, but the rest of the paper pieces transmit the intense likability of the Ruffner spirit.
Jeck is a professor in ceramics at the University of Washington. He doesn't often come out with work of his own, but when he does, it is undeniably intense—Jeck and Ruffner share this, and only this—and technically brilliant. You cannot argue about whether Jeck is a very good artist; he certainly is. Whether you like it or not is another matter. I wish I'd gotten to see a solo show he had two years ago at Gasser Grunert Gallery in New York, and I've always wished for more of his work, period. His two pieces in the group show Wet and Leatherhard at Lawrimore Project a few years ago were devastating, using video, photography, sculpture, half-dried clay, and an antique chest for a pedestal. He deploys his materials precisely, so that his finished figures, often animal-human hybrids with classical references, appear to be on the edges of physical and emotional cliffs, about to explode, fall apart, kill somebody, transfigure.
He's showing five new sculptures. Paul—the apostle, about to be beheaded?—is pure white, armless and legless, and blindfolded with only a drippy mess of a face. But he is frighteningly alive. This is Jeck's magic, to draw breath from materials while allowing them to remain themselves. Jekyll is a bust. He emerges, pained, from craggy ceramic. Puberty is subtitled (After Munch); the Norwegian expressionist painted frightened-looking girls under that title. Jeck's girl-woman, perched on a piece of furniture covered in the sort of flowery wallpaper found in a dollhouse, is a beast deserving of her punishment. It's a monument to misogyny. "Liking" it isn't part of the equation.