Ashley L. Schick’s a small rustle, Carl Linstrum’s The Pretenders and [Dis]location, and Nathaniel Galka’s Twilight Falls Gently, all at Kai Lin Art through August 1, were conceived independently as solo shows. So it’s remarkable that they form a thematic meditation on the same trio of topics: reality and illusion, pictorial representation and abstract decoration, and the relationship between the two pairs of problems.
Schick has taken the biggest risk in relation to her earlier body of work. Known for cut-paper representations of local rustic-appearing scenes (even if they actually depicted the Goat Farm Arts Center), Schick has now produced both watercolors and cut-paper images of predators and prey, though never together. Her own description is full-fledged prose poem: “The colors are bright, like laughter in the face of terror . . . The backgrounds freeze and thaw. A deer licks the sky, reaching to bite, bitten by sharp teeth sliding fast over ice cubes melting under thorns in soft flesh ripping open star forms connecting unseen nodes burning out.”
The colors of the cut paper are indeed bright, and not at all realistic, set against icily white-on-white backgrounds of trees or industrial landscapes that connote invisibility rather than winter. The renderings are sometimes poignantly exact — like the angle and detail of a bent foreleg in The Weary — but just as often abstracted, catching the emotional tone more than the precise posture, as in Great Conquering Grey Eyes. The tension between representing an event and symbolizing it has seldom been embodied more fascinatingly, and Schick has accomplished it through a poetic sensibility as fraught with visual metaphors as her prose-poem statement is with verbal ones.
The profiles of the predators are equally arresting, and it’s worth noting that none is engaged in direct attack. Sometimes the deer appear in flight, but, as in classical Greek tragedy, the violence occurs offstage.
Linstrum also represents prey and predators, but his Pretenders are all copied from taxidermy specimens in the dioramas of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. These same dioramas have been utilized by so many artists (including Atlanta’s own Joseph Peragine) that it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could find a new way of representing them. However, Linstrum has turned the figures into headshot-like portraits set against decorative patterns or painted on actual wallpaper.
Their artificiality is emphasized in the flatness of the rendering of Pretender (Red Leopard): the color and lack of dimensionality of the creature and its surrounding vegetation suggest its kinship with the wallpaper rather than with the nature that the museum diorama purportedly represents. The oil and glitter paintings on wood panel teach this lesson in a slightly different way, turning the natural world into emphatically superficial decoration with a Blue Zebra or Purple Bear tarted up for viewer consumption.
Linstrum’s [Dis]location series, paintings of landscape photography, is a slightly more obscure meditation on a similar theme. Earlier atmospheric landscape photographs were annotated with numeric inscriptions pinpointing when and where the pictures were taken. Although these romantic, hand-colored lithographs and mixed-media works depict landscapes illuminated by impossibly visionary bursts of light, the notations are mundane, representing the times and locations of such everyday chores as picking up dry cleaning.
The slippage between reality and imagination is immediately evident, but the conceptual distance between the images and the recorded facts that only seem to correspond with them isn’t apparent until we read Linstrum’s eloquently phrased artist’s statement.
Remarkably, Nathaniel Galka’s independently conceived paintings of birds and flowers against decorative backgrounds also make use of glitter and blatant artificiality combined with meticulous realism. Galka’s intent is more poetic and psychological. As noted in his statement, he tries to capture a sense of childhood dreaming alongside adult sophistication. This time, the statement’s verbal elaboration isn’t necessary.
Galka uses a different strategy in almost every painting, but the near-photorealist precision of most of his foreground renderings combined with the loose brushwork of his backgrounds both energizes the relationship between the components and imparts a sense of tranquility. One may enjoy the surprise of leaves rendered with botanical exactitude juxtaposed with ones that consists of mere smears of paint and appreciate the quietly meditative quality of the overall painting.
Galka didn’t set out to score philosophical points, but he has ended up making them anyway. He and Schick explore different emotional terrain, but both have rendered the natural world in ways that are completely dependent on the human imagination even as they catch exact details of the creatures on whom human beings project so much even when they think they see them as they really are.
The real stays real whether or not we perceive and portray it rightly, and it might be interesting to spend some time studying the hummingbird in flight in the lower right-hand corner of Galka’s Birdie’s Bouquet in comparison with the similarly posed hummingbird of a different species in Linstrum’s adjacent Pretender (Blue Hummingbird). Both of them resemble hummingbirds in rapid motion, but both are painted copies, placed against openly artificial backgrounds for completely different reasons.
The decorative has seldom been so openly thought-provoking.
Artist talks by Schick and Linstrum at 2 p.m. on July 27.