Three Amigos

by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ack of a theme doesn't detract from Saranac Art Projects' current show, "No Particular Theme," which was curated by Washington State University museum director Chris Bruce. In keeping with Saranac's mission to bring contemporary art to Spokane, the exhibition showcases West Coast-based artists Joseph Park, Alfred Harris and Bruce Houston. It's unpretentious and lighthearted, with contemporary overtones and varied visual appeal.

"I chose these three artists," said Bruce, "because if I could, I'd have their work in my home."

Whether because his work is in high demand or because he has limited output, only four paintings are included from Seattle-based Joseph Park, whose stylized paint handling hints at pop surrealism. "Parrish Waves" is a graphically-rendered exploration in electric blue, a reflection of Park's interest in illustrator Maxfield Parrish. Park traveled to upstate New York and parlayed his journeys into powerful, monochromatic, sepia brown and cobalt blue oil paintings of waves, dunes and iconic East Coast architecture. "Moran," for example, celebrates and memorializes Thomas Moran of the Hudson River School and one of the founding fathers of American landscape painting. Park's painting surface is slick, the colors cool, yet the emotional subtext is quietly intense.

"After Oswald," by comparison, is highly charged, partially because of the subject matter -- the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby -- and partially because of style. Park geometrifies the figure, breaking it into soft-edged planes while overlaying what looks like airbrush or stippling to pump up the volume of his otherwise subtle colors. His image is not the original photograph by reporter Bob Jackson, but rather George Mahlberg's photo-manipulated version which inserts a keyboard and guitar into the already circus-like scene. Park's elevation of Mahlberg's altered version presents a conceptual dilemma to the viewer: What (and whom) should we believe?

In sharp contrast to Park's nostalgic, referential pieces, Alfred Harris creates work that is process-oriented and dependent upon formal aesthetics like color, shape and line for its impact. From afar, Harris's paintings appear like simple line paintings in high-key chartreuse, black, melon and red. Close up, however, they reveal themselves to be variations on a linear theme, painted and cut and repositioned on pieces of paper, then unified under a clear resin coating. The puzzle-like feel to paintings like "Ariadne's Thread" and "Plan C" echoes the Dadaist approach to intuitive mark-making. From above, Harris's works resemble mazes.

The third leg of the exhibition is provided by sculptor Bruce Houston, whose kitschy assemblages resurrected from the 1970s through '90s still carry plenty of punch. His "Dice Wedding Couple," for example, is the familiar wedding cake topper bride-and-groom set whose heads have been replaced with dice. The couple (looking to get lucky at love?) are surrounded by more dice, stacked like presents.

Houston is known for incorporating replicas of modern artwork into his assemblages, with past works including Frank Stella on a bust of Nefertiti. At Saranac, Houston creates a miniature tableau with hula dancers shimmying in front of a Jackson Pollack "action" painting, leaving viewers to contemplate the juxtaposition of two types of movement.

Perhaps inspired by Houston's humorous pieces or the charming playfulness of Harris' work, curator Chris Bruce has positioned Houston's "Three Amigos" sculpture at the entrance to the gallery. It's an unassuming little work showing three cowboys seated on a horse and in mid-lasso, and it tends to elicit grins from passersby.

Considering the seriousness and constraints under which most museum curators operate, the Saranac exhibit allows Bruce -- as it has other guest curators -- an opportunity to do something different. "No Particular Theme" serves as a reminder that art is capable of evoking a wide range of emotions, not the least of which is pleasure.

"No Particular Theme," featuring work by Alfred Harris, Joseph Park and Bruce Houston, continues through Saturday, April 26, at Saranac Art Projects, 25 W. Main Ave. Hours: Wed.-Sat. 11 am-5:30 pm. Call 954-5458.