Muck and Mirrors

Doodled bacteria and self-portraits invade two downtown galleries.

When we think of the self-portrait, what comes immediately to mind are the intense images of artists who were obsessed enough with their lives to paint themselves again and again. Vincent Van Gogh staring out from torrential swirls of blue paint and Frida Kahlo sitting poised in a jungle with one of her favorite monkeys on her shoulder are two among many. Yet through the course of their careers, many other artists create at least a few artworks that they name "self-portraits." Of course, for some artists every artwork is a revelation of self.

Group Invitational: Self Portraits at the Temple Gallery gathers visions of self by more than 20 local artists in a single exhibition. Organized by the Etherton Gallery, which manages the Temple Gallery, the invitational is the second in what has become an annual thematic exhibition. Last year's exhibition, Van Gogh Fakes, featured paintings inspired by Van Gogh, and it was shown during the Arizona Theatre Company's production Inventing Van Gogh at the Temple of Music and Art.

Artists in the Group Invitational handle the self-portrait in quite different ways. Gweneth Scally, an artist who typically does not include herself in her work, has metaphorically stepped into one of her paintings. Scally's small, oil-on-board painting "Cur" shows her jubilantly laughing at a dog that is wearing red latex gloves and is strung up, dangling in the air. If this seems bizarre, it's because Scally has a sense of humor about her art. In "Suspense"--a painting in her current exhibition at the HazMat Basement Gallery--two dog-like animals wearing yellow cleaning gloves are suspended in air, and a woman wearing only underwear is sitting slumped in her chair. The painting is a comment on American obsessions with cleanliness, but who wants to be serious all of the time?

Bailey Doogan also is an artist who is known for her intense art, but she often uses herself to create some of her imagery. Her two small self-portraits in this exhibition are from an earlier series she did on scratch board, a medium where the board is covered with a black surface that the artist then scratches off using a fine-point instrument. The resulting images are meticulously rendered portraits that not only capture her scowling expression, but also accentuate her wrinkles. By bringing the self-portrait to the literal surface of skin, Doogan reveals that her artistic concerns with women and aging are also intense, personal issues for her.

Eriks Rudans rather cagily converts his reliefs made from wood scraps to resemble himself by adding a metal beard, ears that stick out and an incredibly long, well-crafted nose. He encloses the relief in a frame to make it a more painterly self-portrait. He is also holding a beautiful fish made of metal for his "Self with Fish." The fish presumably means something to him.

Some of the artists seem to have pushed the definition of what constitutes a self-portrait, which is a bit understandable for artists who don't do figurative or representational work. For example, Cynthia Miller represents herself with a painting of her artist's apron.

If this were an art-history book, we would probably see photographs of the artists and that would be interesting. It wouldn't be enough, though, because what we want from an artist's self-portrait is a porthole into his or her soul. Realistically, how many artists could truly accomplish that in a single image?

WHO HASN'T started doodling during a long meeting? When the doodles have gotten so elaborate and practically taken over the page, you can only hope that someone has the good sense to call an end to it all. Bogdan Achimescu's doodles didn't start at a tedious meeting, but on a relaxing weekend in a charming Polish town. The Romanian-born artist had been reading Carl Jung's book Mandala when he became possessed with the need to draw doodles--everywhere. When he ran out of paper, he turned to his and his companion's hand. That was in 1994, and only now has Achimescu's doodle obsession been transformed into an art exhibition: Good Bacteria, Bad Bacteria at GOCAIA (Gallery of Contemporary and Indigenous Art).

Good Bacteria, Bad Bacteria is actually only a single installation piece. Achimescu did ink drawings on a long scroll of 4-foot-wide textured ecru paper. He then hung the unrolled scroll of paper around the gallery's walls using binder clips, so that the images continue unbroken around the room, except for an opening for the rear gallery door.

The first image on the scroll is a cartoon-like drawing of three naked figures and a dog. The text below tells a bizarre story of naked, dirty people, who by ironing on one person's back generate a mutation of the bacterial population. The rest of the scroll is full of the "doodles," precisely drawn biomorphic shapes. Some are symmetrical, others asymmetrical. They are as idiosyncratic as snowflakes, and they seem to be rising, tumbling or floating in air.

They would be simply doodles, the obsessions of a graphomanic artist, were it not for the nine sheets of standard bond paper posted at intervals beneath the scroll. Using different forms of text, such as dialogue, correspondence and e-mail, Achimescu places his "doodles" in the context of contemporary society's many fears related to bacteria. A partially declassified letter from Lt. Col. Petrescu talks about a bacterial emergency and a possible breach of the NATO treaty. Coded e-mail between Achmed and Mizor clearly reflects our fear of bioterrorism.

Having to squat down to read the texts is a bit frustrating, but the low-tech presentation isn't because GOCAIA is a small gallery on Congress Street. Achimescu is known for using inexpensive materials, and he has used this text-on-bond-paper method in other installations.

For GOCAIA, Good Bacteria, Bad Bacteria was an opportunity to take advantage of having international talent on the scene. Achimescu, who trained in Poland, was a visiting professor of art at the University of Arizona last year. His work is included in major national collections throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art in the United States. He was part of the Context Network Group that exhibited in the Romanian Pavilion in last year's Venice Biennale.

For an artist who has drawn portraits on thousands of coffee filters, Good Bacteria, Bad Bacteria seems a simpler work although there are, perhaps, a thousand small, meticulously rendered bacteria on this scroll. Achimescu actually added a few bacteria at the exhibition's opening reception. Ultimately, you have to admire the brazenness of an artist who has transformed doodles into a commentary on some of the most pressing issues of our day. That the imagery is based on enlarged doodles also suggests that our paranoia has magnified issues like bioterrorism and biowarfare beyond the scale they truly deserve. Achimescu begins everything in the context of irony, and that is one of the most useful skills in the 21st century.

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