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Weird Dreams 

by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class="dropcap" & I & lt;/span & f Mel McCuddin were a writer -- and not the enduring painter that he is -- he'd likely be a mystery writer. From wryly witty to outright ridiculous, from awkwardly disturbing to alchemical, McCuddin's paintings read like snippets of dialogue or scenes from the story spun from McCuddin's expansive lexicon of images. And always, even in the most humorous of his imagery, there is an undercurrent, a sense of the other, of more questions than answers.

In "Canis Major," for example, man and dog stand side by side, the man's hand disappearing behind the dog's massive head. Is this merely an image of "man and man's best friend"? Which of the two is the top dog? The canine's almost-grinning head is in three-quarter profile, its blood-red mouth visible inside powerful jaws roughly the same size as the bald head of the thin man beside him. The human, staring face-forward, seems benign, yet his body morphs into a tunic of cautionary, nuclear orange, some of it reflecting on the dog. Around the man's waist is an odd, triangular constellation of whitish dots, which are also repeated high on the horizon behind the two figures. Man -- the chart maker of the universe, the domesticator of animals, the theoretical pinnacle of living organisms--is placed alongside the beast, yet this painting leads to questions about wisdom, wildness and the nature of our relationship to our world.

Or maybe it's just a bald dude and his pet wolfhound.

In "The Tutor", a cowboy-hatted figure in profile bends awkwardly forward, a downward-pointing stick in his hand. He is dwarfed by a benevolent-looking crow. The platform on which they appear to balance is itself teetering on a triangular fulcrum. Again, what does it mean?

Ah, but that's the allure of a Mel McCuddin painting: You get just enough to glean a sense of the story, but not enough to be fully sure. Like life, McCuddin's work is full of clues -- how we came to exist, why we behave as we do -- yet no conclusiveness.

His paintings go beyond the surface, both literally and figuratively. "My early paintings were abstract expressionist," he writes in his artist statement for the Art Spirit exhibit, "and gradually evolved into my present style as I felt the need to more precisely communicate my thoughts." A process painter, McCuddin still creates surfaces stratified with paint: wiped on and off, dripped, gently scraped. His images don't just sit on the canvas; they emerge as if from the subconscious and hover there, like a weird and compelling dream.

"I can't really say where all this stuff comes from," McCuddin notes about his imagery, which may be influenced by modern events or something he has read. Influences include Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, all of whom tend to work figuratively and metaphorically. "Somewhere in the process of painting," says McCuddin, "things... come together."

"New Paintings" by Mel McCuddin appears at the Art Spirit Gallery, 415 Sherman Ave. in Coeur d'Alene, from Friday through Nov. 29, with an opening reception on Nov. 14 from 5-9 pm. Free. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays from 11 am-6 pm; Fridays, until 9 pm. Visit or call (208) 765-6006.

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