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Soul and the Self 

Irregular, turbulent self-portraits join jazzy sketches at Davis Dominguez Gallery

Albert Kogel's self-portraits are simple, in a way: They're nothing but big heads floating against painted backgrounds.

But their construction is anything but simple. Veering violently between painting and sculpture, these acrylics on wood soar out in three dimensions. Jigsawed wooden pieces are crazy-quilted together. Slashed and sawed, gouged and glued, their multiple layers form irregular surfaces, jagged facial landscapes pockmarked by craters and cliffs.

In "Birdeye," one of 16 on view at Davis Dominguez Gallery, one eye is in a deep canyon, just north of a sharp-edge red plateau that forms a cheek. A nose sails down over both, and a red bird, on still another piece of splintered wood, is coming in from the west. Nothing matches up. As complex as the human psyche, these works have no neat lines, no tidy categories.

To get his heavily worked surfaces, Kogel first attacks slabs of wood with paint. He splatters and waves and layers his pigments, pushing his brushes chaotically in every direction. His colors are expressionist, even fauvist--French for "wild beast"--all blood reds, garish purples and glittering golds, heavily laced with black.

When the paintings dry, he dismembers them with a jigsaw, according to gallery co-owner Mike Dominguez, sawing them up into random shapes. The shards get reassembled into splintery collages, but the original parts rarely stay together. An eye from one painting might remain where it is, but its mate might travel to another.

In a grand finale, Kogel slashes his surfaces with woodworking knives, until his faces look like out-of-control woodblock plates. Sometimes, he scrapes away the paint, so that only a thin glaze--a memory of the color--is left behind, and the wavy grain of the wood breaks through, its patterns becoming part of the final work.

This elaborate technique, which looks like a fun kind of therapy, readily conjures up the self's shifting moods. It's especially well-suited to expressing physical pain and psychological dislocation. In "Between Surgeries," stitches are indented into the forehead; the eyes are bleary and squinting, and the mouth is askew. You can almost feel the throbbing of the wounds of the flesh.

"Sun Dazed" suggests psychic torments. Patterns are gouged into the skin, like tattoos or scars, and a second face--a woman's, perhaps--is occupying the forehead, suggesting an obsession.

But other works find the soul in a serene spirit. "Moondazed" glows with the light of the silvery moon, the face a shimmering collage of gray-white and gold, in a halo of maroon and red. Kogel has made a pleasing fingerpainting in the background, trailing brown paint with a finger across the whorls of wood.

In others, an affection for animals shines through. In the witty "Cat on a Hot Thin Man," a nicely striped black-and-white kitty sits proprietarily on a shoulder. "Birdman of Alcatraz" has a green parrot lodged in the shoulder slot.

Guest-curated by local art collector Dan Leach, the show also includes a handful of real woodblock prints on paper, an ironic commentary, perhaps, on the paintings that look like woodblock plates. Tranquil where the self-portraits are chaotic, the abstracted prints have a kind of floating Zen aesthetic. But they can't compete with the sturm und drang of the self-portraits.

Kogel's work is paired with drawings by Willie Bonner, who got his MFA at the UA and now lives in Seattle. Typically, Bonner takes on big themes in big paintings. During his time in Tucson, he exhibited large-scale narratives that coursed energetically over African-American history. Bold and jazzy, they critically examined the way stereotypes are constructed, in movies and other media.

Here, he surprises with a set of small-scale drawings. According to Dominguez, Bonner draws daily to loosen up, using the drawings as a "morning exercise for his hands and his eyes." But they're fine works of art in and of themselves.

In contrast to Kogel's complicated painted wood pieces, Bonner's are nothing but simple ink lines on paper. And where Kogel confines himself to just one subject--the self--Bonner conjures up a series of mini-worlds. They're like musical dioramas, with jazz musicians gyrating on stages in dark clubs, and audience members cheering in the dim backgrounds. The artist gets all of this out of a Sharpie pen; his black lines--straight, curved, crosshatched, stippled--create light and shadow and moving figures.

Operating on memories of jazz clubs in his native Cleveland, Bonner draws free-form to re-create trumpeters blowing everything they've got into their instruments, guitarists curved over their fretboards, and singers throwing their heads back, wailing with all their souls.

They're wonderful compositions. "Better Get It in Your Soul" has a man singing so ecstatically that he's actually leaping off the stage. Audience members shake their fists in rapture. The whole scene is encased in intersecting diagonals: The stage sails off in one direction; wooden planks on the ceiling go in another; and a shaft of light breaks in an angle over the singer.

Likewise, in "Tryin' to Make Heaven My Home," the female singer stands in a diagonal spotlight. She sings with her whole body, throwing her head back and her arms up, and the cord from the microphone snakes around her, dancing to the rhythm of her voice. Just outside her orb, a guitarist, sax player and trumpeter lovingly bend over their instruments.

For "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," the view is from backstage, and a solo guitarist is silhouetted from behind. He, too, stands in a pool of light, facing a sea of faces in shadow. His performance has the feel of a farewell, and the drawing reads as an elegy for a lost world.

More by Margaret Regan

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