Looking at Scott Kolbo's art is a bit like visiting a freak show. You look. You look away. And then, before you can stop yourself, you not only look back, you stare. In spite of the carnival atmosphere, the air seems thick with human misery. The crowd jeers, the freaks proudly display their oddities. You need some air and you feel vaguely uncomfortable even being there. But you can't move. You see something -- perhaps the hopeful glimmer of a mottled old showgirl's eye -- something utterly familiar and compelling. Strangely touched, you stay.
Although a bit off the beaten track for the Visual Arts Tour, Kolbo's current show at Whitworth, "Sequential Narratives About Street Preachers, Homeless Women, Slapstick Comedy, Stinky Feet and a Very Large Trojan Horse" is worth the side trip. And it's just what the title suggests: a sequence of intaglio prints exploring human futility, social criticism, pop culture and contemporary faith. His characters are exaggerated, even comical, but you wince when you look at them. Color is used sparingly -- for the most part, Kolbo's people live in a perpetual twilight of urban decay. Red and white, whether it's in the loud pattern of a street preacher's trousers or the immediately recognized bull's-eye logo of a major retailer, is visual shorthand for human folly.
"I'm interested in revealing the humanness in all of our stupidity. I use exaggerated forms and images of the grotesque as a way of exploring the idea that people's attitudes and philosophies, the different things they believe, ultimately manifest in what they do," says Kolbo. "At the same time, I hope I'm also finding empathy and compassion in what I'm satirizing. I hope that a tiny measure of grace comes through as well."
The things that engage his imagination are varied and typically dark. His Web site, www.existentialape.com, offers the chance to look at some of his earlier series, including "Lucy the Showgirl," "Existential Ape" (based on Japanese news reports of a rampaging, kitten-wielding monkey) and "Good Country People," based on the short story by Flannery O'Connor. This one in particular is both funny and disturbing, with the prints interspersed by text from the story -- "I see you got a wooden leg. I think you're brave. I think you're real sweet" -- much like an old silent movie.
"I remember when I first stumbled across Flannery O'Connor," Kolbo laughs. "I remember thinking, this is exactly what I've been looking for."
Formerly of Boise and Madison, Wisc., Kolbo has already found some elements of Spokane deserving of a place in his work. In one piece, "Jeremiah Dejected," a lonely old man wanders through what turns out to be the NorthTown parking garage.
"I was driving up Division, which makes me crazy anyway. It's a good example of really poor urban planning," he says. "I was driving by NorthTown, and I saw this thing coming off the garage that looked like a flying buttress or something. I had to take a picture of it."
Kolbo, who teaches printmaking at Whitworth, favors the intaglio technique for its heavy dark lines and ability to capture all the various shades of gray one might find in his low-rent atmospheres. While he finds much in the external world to satirize, one wonders how much his internal experience of foolishness comes into play.
"Probably quite a bit," he replies. "I can be just as foolish as the next person. I've always been fascinated by the variety of ways we find to make jackasses of ourselves, and we often find things in the world that match our inner experience."