What Goes Up

Downtown galleries currently exhibit memories of collapse, birds and beaches

When Simon Donovan was 12 years old, the sky fell.

Or, more precisely, the roof caved in.

Then again, maybe it didn't.

In his artist's statement for The Sky Is Falling, his show at Conrad Wilde Gallery, Donovan says that after his grandfather died, he was sent to stay with his grandmother at her home outside Boston. The old woman slept in a pull-out couch downstairs, and the young boy slept in the ancestral bed upstairs.

At some point during the night, Donovan reports, "I was awakened suddenly to the sound of crashing. I lay on the bed, and above me, the ceiling was caving in. Shards of metal, wood, plaster, glass and sky were all hurtling toward me. It was a split second that seemed like an eternity. Then just as abruptly--it stopped."

The terrified young Simon ran for his grandma, but when she hurried upstairs to inspect the damage, she found nothing amiss. The plaster ceiling was intact.

Dream or nightmare, message from the dead or psychological metaphor, the falling pieces stayed in Donovan's consciousness. Now, decades later, they've emerged in his art. In a new suite of multimedia works, all of them called "The Sky Is Falling," odd sculptural shapes both abstract and vaguely narrative--jagged curves, globes, royal crowns, fish, birds--ricochet over the surface of painted wooden backdrops.

Some of the figures are exactly like the pieces of a house that's caved in on itself (or lost its patriarch), and at least one of the works is nightmarish. In "The Sky Is Falling #4," dangerous-looking shards skitter across a steely surface painted black and silver. Cut sharply and painted metallically, they look like they could slice through a young boy's flesh. And given half a chance, they'd no doubt clank like the chains of Marley's ghost.

But elsewhere, the 3-D elements are orderly, mechanical, rational, like the gears of an old-fashioned clock or a fine-tuned engine. They're flying apart, but their flight is more harmonious than helter-skelter. They careen along in a pleasing cascade of curves and bends and angles, as though Donovan had at long last mastered the chaos of that long-ago night. Their rainbow array of colors, black to blue to pink to yellow, suggest a lightening of mood, from gloom to joy.

"#1" is a series of three 12-inch squares arranged vertically. Rusty and gold, a little shiny, the flying shapes look a bit like finely carved wood. "#13" reminds me of Mary Poppins' night sky. In the original book, the magical nanny climbed a ladder and pasted gold stars on a sky of midnight blue, turning the night from scary to lovely. The background is painted a deep denim blue, and tiny splotches skitter across the surface. The 3-D figures, in autumnal golds and rusts, blow across the surface like so many leaves in October.

Donovan is nothing if not meticulous. A few years back, in his memorable show Prick at the Temple Gallery, he erected a forest of art saguaros, each one deeply creased and imbedded with thousands of prickly nails. Likewise, for the Falling pieces, his craftsmanship is stellar.

The shapes begin, says gallery director Miles Conrad, with two pieces of wood veneer, irregularly cut. Donovan attaches the two together at one end and sprays foam in between them, creating a 3-D form. When the spray hardens, Donovan covers the new little sculptures with plaster (remember that ceiling?) and then paints them, layer upon layer, using Earth-friendly pigments made from clay.

The figures then get moored to a rectangle of wood, which has been painted and sanded, and painted and sanded again, the better to make weathered-looking textures. Though these boards serve as a base for the 3-D figures, they're paintings in their own right, with nice layerings of color and variations in pattern. Some are striped, some speckled.

The radiant "#7," a pattern painting in yellows, whites and grays, looks more like a beach than a death room. Tiny bursts of color skip across the background, while on top, the little sculptures are orderly, stately. And instead of suggesting the splinters of a house collapsed, they conjure up the cheery playthings of childhood: a small slice of purple, a deep pink globe, a playful golden crown.

Conrad says many viewers see birds or fish in the shapes, especially in "#8," in which liberated figures float freely in the air. Stretching floor to ceiling, perhaps 12 feet, three taut strings hold several dozen milky white figures, all of them swaying gently in the breeze of the swamp cooler.

Visitors who have first stopped by Pat Dolan's Birds of a Feather ... ? exhibition next door at The Drawing Studio are more inclined to the avian interpretation. Dolan, a longtime Rancho Linda Vista artist specializing in pastels and environmental art, has made a flock of lively bird drawings in charcoal, sumi ink and pastel.

For this last show in The Drawing Studio's Fourth Avenue space (the gallery/art school is moving to the Sixth Avenue and Congress Street storefront lately vacated by Johnny Gibson), Dolan has really let loose. Her big drawings are like free-form action paintings, with strong, rapid black lines evoking the movement of birds--the flapping of wings, the ruffling of feathers, the bobbing heads, the snapping of beaks.

Some of these appealing works are near-abstractions. The graceful outline of a bird's head, neck or beak can be barely discernible in the flurry of lines and the sudden flashes of color.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the strange work in Just Add Water, the haphazard show at the Hotel Congress by clamdigginTM. Alexandra Fisher and Kevin Johnson are the entrepreneurs of this art team, which does commercial photography, T-shirts and the like. Hung sloppily in the hotel lobby and café, the show was put together by Gráficas, a foothills gallery now managing the downtown space under the name Gráficas@Hotel Congress.

Some of clamdigginTM's beach drawings have a certain seasonal appeal, notably "Stenocara Beetle," a pencil, pastel and charcoal on paper in a retro-postcard vein, and the self-explanatory "Shells." But most of their pictures wouldn't get near first place in a high school art show. "Alexandra," one of the worst, is infected by a TV aesthetic. A pastel portrait (self-portrait?) fashion-model style, it features a young woman with puckered lips and a come-hither look. Yuck.

It's always a challenge to put art over the heads of diners and drinkers, and even more of a challenge to look at it. But clamdigginTM is hardly worth the trouble.

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