David Pennington takes a dim view of arts criticism, psychotherapy and—dare I say it—the annual "Best of Tucson" awards.
OK, he doesn't really hate "Best of Tucson." It's just that in one of his "existential comic strips" on view at Davis Dominguez Gallery, he contrasts the issue's cheery enthusiasms with the stark reality that one day we will all die.
The strip in question, "Other Stories," has been expertly collaged with everything from 1950s comic-book characters to studio art drawings. At the left end, a retro-looking couple is pondering their votes for BOT, and they look upward as though seeking answers in the heavens.
"I'm addicted to the Tortilla Soup!" the woman says.
The man thoughtfully responds, "I'm having the Chopped Strawberry Chicken Salad."
The ultimate fate of these solemn foodies, and of all other humans, is starkly drawn at the far right end of the strip. Six nude drawings picture three women and three men at three stages of life: in healthy young adulthood, slumpy middle age and crumpled old age. In a dialogue bubble, the young man says, "a game, nothing but a game." To which the wise old man, familiar with life's sorrows, says, "No, no it isn't."
Pennington's brooding works all excavate the dark depths of the soul. A skillful collagist, he rounds up all manner of somber images, many drawn from art history. The "Best of Tucson" strip, for one, features cubist drawings, a cartoon robot and a figure taken from a medieval painting slicing into the chest of a corpse.
"Psychotherapy," another of the 17 strips in the show, plumbs psychic despair through a nightmarish surrealism. A man wakes up in terror in the middle of the night. Above him a pair of giant human lips float by and a fish swims through the air. Disembodied quotes, straight from a therapy session, also hover above him. "I didn't know," reads one. "How could I know?"
In the final panel, three painterly female nudes discuss our limited choices in life. "What do I do?" demands one. Another delivers a response that dismisses the introspection of psychotherapy.
"Go home," she replies. "Get back to normal."
Elsewhere Pennington skewers the art world. "Fartforum" pulverizes Art Forum, the authoritative mag whose reviews are highly prized. In the first panel, a hand-written note, apparently from an editor, cruelly dismisses an artist's work: "Sorry, your work is too personal, disturbed, indecipherable."
The cartoon woman receiving this artistic death sentence is in despair. "Oh My Gawd!" she screams.
The current show at Davis Dominguez, which features three artists, puts the dark cartoons of Pennington in conversation with the bright paintings of Mike Stack. Where Pennington's work is gloomy, Stack's is pure joy. Where Pennington adheres to narrative, Stack sticks mostly with abstraction.
An art professor at Pima College, Stack is a brilliant colorist who makes large, elegant abstractions out of tiny bands of color. Working in fine oils on linen, Stack covers his entire surface with thousands of precisely painted horizontal stripes, each in three or more colors, and each just a quarter of an inch high.
The 10 paintings on view veer toward either a maroon or violet palette, though each work has hundreds, if not thousands of colors, embedded in these tiny bands. It's impossible to conceive how the artist gets the miniscule lines in his rigorous works so straight.
Abstract as they are, these luminous works nevertheless suggest the western landscape. The stacked bars of color hint at a horizon, the sky and the earth. In the center of each painting, the colors lighten up, beguiling the eye to imagine a sunset or a sunrise breaking at the horizon line.
Even the titles—"Light/Distance," "Elephant Dome"—point toward nature. "Elephant Dome," about 4 feet wide and 5 feet high, is rendered in a thousand tones of magenta, maroon, violet and pink, with shots of sky blue here and there. The darker shades gather at the margins, while the lightest and palest radiate from the center. Transcendent delicate pinks stretched across the middle deliver all the joy of a rising sun.
A trio of three smaller paintings in mostly violet tones seem to track the trajectory of the sun and its light at day's end. The works replicate the experience of watching the sunset over a desert mountain, from the build-up to brilliance to the fade into twilight.
The first painting, "Caesura," is all evening blues, lilac and turquoise, with a small light glimmering at the center. By the second painting, "Relay," that small glow has burst into glorious golden pink, capturing the moment when the setting sun is at its most radiant. The title of the final work, "Gradient Sigh," echoes a viewer's sigh of satisfaction after the big event, when the light dims and the soft blues of evening overtake the showy golds.
The abstract steel sculptures of David Mazza stay silent in Stack and Pennington's battle over light and dark. Mazza's works don't have much to do with sun and shadow. They're about shape and size and materials.
His large floor sculptures, crafted of angular black and silver, playfully tangle with triangles.
"Ekahau," which is some 6 feet high, consists entirely of three interlocking open triangles, their steel bars slashing diagonally through the air in unexpected directions, creating a kaleidoscope of pleasing shapes.
Five little sculptures, made of steel and painted lipstick red, stand on pedestals. They're as charming as a child's block tower waiting to be knocked down. Cylinders and rectangular blocks are stacked atop one another at improbable angles, striving upward, but caught, perhaps, in the precarious moment before a collapse.