Crocker Art Museum

Sacramento, California

(916) 264-5423.


Traditions/Innovations: Traditions/Innovations: Four Northern California Artists, on exhibit June 6 through July 27, 1997 at the Herold Gallery. American art today is often appreciated for its novelty-in subject matter, technique, or style. Alongside this search for innovation, a number of artists seek expressive means informed by tradition. Such references characterize the work of a number of engaging artists working in Northern California today. Troy Dalton, Stephen J. Kaltenbach, Hung Liu, and Brian Tripp create compelling contemporary paintings and sculptures that reference traditional art and literature. They draw upon sources as varied as Biblical texts, classical antique sculpture, native Karok regalia from Northern California, and historic photographs made in China.

Troy Dalton incorporates mythology and religion, art masterpieces (both
historical and modern), and natural science texts, in his complex
paintings. Among Dalton's challenges in Sacrificial Bacchanal #1, was to
describe his own hands and face in close proximity to each other. Here,
with his fingers pulling down on his cheeks, the artist literally forces
himself to see. The goat's head he balances in a brass pan is from a
National Geographic magazine, and the two figures in the background were
inspired by reproductions of Italian Baroque drawings. These are
interpreted as paintings, with Dalton appreciating reproductions because
they lack the presence of originals, and thus lend themselves to being
developed anew. The shallow stage-like box, which exposes and confines
the artist, is surrounded by brilliant brushstrokes. These acknowledge
Dalton's admiration for abstract painting and make the figurative
elements appear more strikingly realistic by contrast.
(Above, Touch, 1996, acrylic on canvas)
Dalton has explored a number of styles and themes in his work. He
turned to figurative, allegorical subjects in the 1980s, and continued
working with them after enrolling in graduate school at the University
of California at Davis.
Like many of his paintings, Desperately Seeking
Expression in the Art Official was revised over many years. It was first
a landscape viewed through a wall. He set the painting aside after it
was damaged, and later added the mural of the pieta (taken from
Bouguereau). Dalton then painted the female figures at the left from
models. As he worked on the canvas, he covered the surface with black
gesso, which he proceeded to belt sand and scrape until the images
reappeared. He often uses this technique, which offers an additional way
of "making marks"-one that is subtractive rather than additive. When
Dalton added the foreground figure, he also painted in the rubber cow,
which alludes to the Montana cattle ranch on which he was raised. Only
later did he realize the reference to a "sacred cow" that this unlikely
object offers.
(Above, The Birth of Cain, 1993, acrylic on canvas)
The Birth of Cain is one of a series of paintings and drawings (Dalton
also makes large drawings, although not as studies and frequently
following the paintings to which they relate) about Adam's first wife,
Lilith. The painting was composed in part by working from the model and
using images from contemporary mass culture (Lilith's pose is adopted
from a perfume advertisement in a magazine). Lilith is prominently
tattooed, a treatment that allows Dalton to introduce additional
information and challenges him to invent decoration on a
three-dimensional surface. Dalton appreciates tattoos as being
"incredibly beautiful," yet having a social stigma. He features the
egret on Lilith because it is noted for its voraciousness, and thus
serves "as a foil to the serpent" lurking below. Such symbols abound in
The Birth of Cain, which also displays the artist's consummate
draughtsmanship and sheer pleasure in painting.
Stephen J. Kaltenbach explores many media, including ceramics,
conceptual art, and painting. Recently, however, he has devoted
considerable attention to sculpture to address conceptual issues that
interest him.
(Above, Arch of Triumph, 1988, clay and plaster)
Kaltenbach's work is characterized by the ambitious ideas that underlie
his pieces, many of which are studies or maquettes for monumental
projects. For instance, Kaltenbach envisions executing a twelve-foot
high version of Arch of Triumph where viewers could walk underneath the
extended arm. Although his forms resemble classical antique sculptures,
Kaltenbach sculpts from models (using opportunities provided by the life
sculpture class he teaches at California State University, Sacramento).
Here he also used images from muscle magazines for details. In Arch of
Triumph Kaltenbach seeks to express the "triumph of peacemakers over
warmongers... a sword attached to a bodiless arm is not very dangerous."
This piece also is inspired by the Biblical passage "They will beat
their swords into plowshares"; the sword piercing into the ground is
Kaltenbach explores this allusion in a very different format in Star
Plow (1996). Painted on velvet, Star Plow is a conceptual proposal for a
nuclear poem, to be created by "retargeting the world's arsenal of ICBMs
to spell the word 'JOY' in outer space." It represents the artist's
vision that the military establishment might redeploy weapons as
fireworks. The word "JOY" creates the shape of a plowshare, which
reinforces this alternative use of armaments.
(Above, Proposal for a Dam, 1995, melamine plaster)
Kaltenbach uses images of the Greek goddess Venus as metaphors for
society's views of women. Derelict, for instance, transforms a Venus
head into the hull of ship that has been left in a sandbar to rust, much
as elderly relatives, who are predominantly female, are placed in
convalescent centers and forgotten. Kaltenbach describes Man Crying Over
Artifact, with a male figure seated, despairing, on a Venus head as a
metaphorical image for personal challenges relating to women.
Kaltenbach's references are more universal in Study for a Dam, which
combines miniature Greek kore figures, Japanese masks, and Indian temple
statuary with the heads of Robert Arneson and Jackson Pollock. In
compressing fragments of sculptures associated with many countries and
eras in a compact space, Kaltenbach seeks a "memorial to all
civilizations." He perceives figure sculptures as symbolic of their
cultures, with fragments indicating both their achievements and demise.
The dam form on which they appear offers an immense and unexpected
surface for embellishment. It likewise embodies the potential for both
positive and negative change, much as losses are incurred and gains made
in the successive rise and fall of civilizations.
Hung Liu uses historical photographs for paintings that examine issues
related to the history of China-and how others have perceived it. Liu is
uniquely qualified to examine such themes. She was born in Manchuria and
immigrated to the United States thirteen years ago. Her father was
jailed as a political dissident shortly after her birth, and Liu was
raised by her mother in Beijing. With the onset of the Cultural
Revolution in 1966, she was sent to the provinces to labor in the fields
for four years. Under these trying circumstances, she learned
photography and secretly made small paintings. Upon returning to
Beijing, she enrolled at the Central Academy of Fine Art. Its social
realist curriculum placed emphasis on copying models, and because Liu
was in the mural painting program, she was able to visit the caves at
Dunhuang in 1979-80, where she was impressed by the remarkable beauty of
the centuries-old "ghost images."
Liu made slides of her work, and asked a friend who was studying at the
University of California at San Diego to share them with the art
department. She was accepted into the graduate program, where the
avant-garde art faculty included Allen Kaprow and David and Eleanor
(above, Bitter Liver, 1997, oil on canvas, 90 x 60 inches,
courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery, photo: John Wilson White)
Liu is interested in how women and children are perceived. She explores
these themes through vintage photographs collected on return visits to
China and elsewhere. Among the historic photographs Liu uses are early
20th-century portraits of prostitutes. In recent paintings, Liu selected
bust-length portraits from albums that were prepared in China for
potential clients during the 1920s as her sources. Such books represent
a collision of cultures, as models were often posed with cars or views
of Niagara Falls. In addition, most of the photographs, such as the one
on which Bitter Liver is based, show the young girls as very traditional
Subjects are consciously posed to appear demure, even
self-conscious, while simultaneously conveying their availability to the
viewer. Liu adopts the oval format of her photographic source, which
asserts its historic character, and adds a male figure and a Song
Dynasty acupuncture diagram at the right. The diagram chosen is one for
the liver, a source for Liu's title and also a reference for man's
Liu amplifies sensual details-such as the pearl necklace and fan-and
varies the treatment of her paint to create an exciting surface. Areas
of impasto contrast with very dilute pigment that trickles down the
canvas. Liu sees the streaks as analogous to how photographs (and
memories) fade, noting that the Chinese word for "to develop"
photographs is the same as that for "to wash."
Liu views the advent of photography as a turning point in human
representation, and has a continuing interest in how photographers
"control" their subjects, especially when photographers portray cultures
other than their own. Liu addresses this confrontation in several
canvases inspired by photographs taken by Joseph Rocks, which are
published in Lamas, Princes and Brigands. Among them is a photograph of
a group of Tibetan hunters, who exhibit their trophy (a vulture) for the
camera. Their poses and apparel, and even the surrounding landscape,
could easily be associated with the American West, forcing viewers to
consider how culture affects our perceptions. The unequal match of men
and prey also touches on contemporary issues about the relationship of
human beings and nature.
The triangles, striations, and jagged lines that dominate Brian Tripp's
large-scale wall pieces repeat motifs from both the basketry and painted
arrows of the Karok people of northwestern California. An honored Karok
singer, dancer, and traditionalist, Tripp is instrumental to the
continued vitality of his people's traditions, in addition to being a
highly regarded contemporary visual artist.
(Above, He Shoulders the Load, 1996, mixed media, 36 x 48 x 12 inches)
Tripp's work reflects his energy and openness to stimuli from many
sources. These range from avant-garde art to forms that have been handed
down for many generations in Karok regalia. He is similarly democratic
in his choice of media, using materials as varied as china marker,
paint, aluminum foil, street signs, glass, and wood. The Best Things in
Life Aren't Free gives evidence of the artist's restlessness and the
tumult in his culture. Saliently, he tranposes the balanced shapes from
Karok regalia into jarring lines that communicate tension and upheaval.
This disorder is reinforced by glistening sticks, covered with foil,
shaped into dollar signs.
(Above, Doing What Comes Naturally, mixed media)
Tripp breaks rules: adding found objects, such as traffic signs, to the
surfaces his paintings; taking apart and reassembling his images; and
appending irregular attachments that energize his compositions.
In Aftershock, Tripp suspends six large figures composed of pieces of found
wood on a surface of boldly painted rectangles and triangles. The
simplified figures, which take advantage of natural patterns of growth
and wear on the wood, are haunting; some have sharply broken sticks for
arms, others are weighted down by rocks around their neck or torso.
Aftershock conveys a sense of immediacy in its execution, with roughly
painted lines, streaking paint, and raw edges. And its title
communicates the artist's socio-political intentions, making reference
to an earthquake, and to how the Native Californian world was "shaken to
the core" when lands were taken and cultures subjugated by white
intruders. Tripp identifies the central figure, with his hands tied
behind his back, as signifying the impact of this invasion, while the
personages that surround him stand upright and serve as protectors.
Tripp also creates powerful installations and three-dimensional
sculptures, such as He Shoulders the Load. Here the suspended horizontal
bar serves as a yoke; its attachments, planks of wood, sticks, and
stones-all painted an identical saturated red-represent all the various
responsibilities that the figure must assume. Tripp says these include
not only the commitments to family and a livelihood, but also the
challenge of maintaining a threatened culture.
Text and photos courtesy of Crocker Art Museum

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