The Disaster Show
Roq la Rue, 2224 Second Ave, 374-8977.
Through Sept 30

Henk Pander: The Wreck of the New Carissa
Davidson Galleries, 313 Occidental Ave S, 624-7684.
Through Sept 30.

IF YOU DIDN'T know it before Titanic, you know it now: Disaster is the province of art. (What? Oh, all right then--entertainment.) The disaster story has always held sway over the imagination, from the crashing of the Tower of Babel to the Hindenberg falling from the sky. It's part cautionary tale ("That could never happen to me") and part near-death experience ("That could have happened to me!"), and the result is that we all have to face that we've become, inadvertently or not, disaster junkies.

This month, all you have to do to prove it is toddle on over to Roq la Rue for The Disaster Show, featuring a quite perfect balance of paintings by Robert Preston and Disasterware, by our own local ghoul, Charles Krafft. Preston, a New Hampshire artist, turns images taken by his father, a newspaper reporter from the '40s to the '70s, into large-scale paintings. Most of them have an almost extraordinary stillness, despite the gruesome content: a pair of bodies on a beach, still belted into their seats; a cluster of heads peering into a crushed vehicle (see picture). In the best of these paintings, the people--alive and dead--are front and center, caught in the klieg-light glare of the camera flash. There is both visual and psychological claustrophobia, the right mix of thrill and distaste. In Wreck Ghouls, two boys in vintage '50s threads pose with a pile-up of vintage '50s cars, their expressions at once blank and rhapsodic, if such a thing can be said. Gangland Slaying shows two bloody bodies lying in perfect opposition in a narrow hallway. One man's hand is held to his chest wound, as if to stanch it, and both victims' clothing--natty suits, two-tone shoes--date the painting in a way that adds to its unreality. The color, the light, the subject--these could be scenes on a sound stage as easily as not.

In the back room, Krafft creates his own kind of opposition to Preston's freeze-frame: He commemorates disaster after disaster on cheap Chinett plates, using blueprint photocopies of both specific and nonspecific events--airlifts, shipwrecks, the Andrea Doria (I think), a collapsed house, blank people giving each other injections--and shellacking them to the plates, recalling Delftware, of course, but remaining utterly disposable. Last month, in his storefront Porcelain War Project, Krafft showed a whole arsenal of guns, grenades, and bazooka rounds done in real Delft style, raising the fetishization of war objects to a grand new level. But in his Disasterware, there's no glorious object to be revered. The catastrophic event is just another day gone by, destined eventually for the trash.

At the Davidson Galleries, Henk Pander is showing a series of enormous (two of them are seven by 12 feet) paintings of the wreck of the New Carissa, the freighter that ran aground off the Oregon coast last year. I remember watching the video of the ship being exploded to stop the fuel spill, the surreal soft cloud of fire and smoke, the density of the image that filled the television screen in the deliberate gloom of my apartment. These paintings are not about the little lives of people; they are only about the event itself, and the sheer size of these works makes it momentous. They loom, and seeing them is like coming upon the enormous painting Nightwatch in the Rijksmuseum (and Pander is a Dutch artist--go figure!). The quality of the painting is fine, nothing tremendous in my opinion--although Pander has an easy way with the elements of earth, air, water, and fire--but he has composed his scenes magnificently. In Oregon Beach with Distant Wreck, a pleasant beachscape extends from one corner of the canvas to another, and then just before your eye leaves it altogether, there are the two unlikely halves of the New Carissa, almost merged with the sky behind it. Which begs all sorts of interesting questions about foreground and background, event and art, present attention versus backward look.

Disasters make such good stories, which is why we tell them again and again. The narrow escape, the actual blood, the march of time setting the event firmly into the past. And lucky us, thanks to art, we can get off on it again and again.