“Illuminate,” at Kai Lin Art through January 25, is one of those year-ending-and-beginning gallery survey shows that can’t be summed up, period. The title is appropriate in several ways: to “illuminate” means to shed light on or to enlighten in ways that range from the literally glittery to the analytical and the mystical. It fits the season when religious and secular festivals celebrate light in almost as many senses.
That said, it’s hard to make linkages among artworks that range from Nathan Sharratt’s “Inspiration For Moderns” Series II to the earnest irony of Jason Kofke’s pictures of 1960s-era scientists, with Sam Parker’s intricate near-neo-psychedelia close at hand. So it’s better to tease out just one strand that seems dominant, that of nostalgically childlike innocence tempered by adult knowledge. (The artists themselves wouldn’t necessarily recognize this description of their work.)
Alex Leopold’s large-scale collages are generalized evocations of bygone times, using everything from citrus crate labels to photos of the Cotton Club and African-American dancers, these last two flanked by attached pieces of tableware and pages of foreign country names torn from a reference guide for stamp collectors. The goal seems to be an all-purpose sense of good-timey pastness rather than actual history. Though the juxtaposed pictures could easily slide into the politics of race, class and gender, Leopold doesn’t seem to be aiming for anything more profound than Tim Boyd’s adjacent painting of a pig gleefully celebrating “Bacon” — which could also be taken as a cynical political statement about people who celebrate their own exploitation.
Most of the show slides on this edge of ironic frivolity teetering on the brink of something more serious. Katrin Wiehle’s drawings with such captions as “meine Heimat” (“my home country,” not translated by the gallery) or “kleiner Wald” (“little woodland”) blend the styles of German folk tale illustration and New Yorker cartoons, again with more historical resonances than the artist may have intended. Her husband and fellow Savannah College of Art and Design professor Mike Lowery likewise seems to go for historico-cultural overload in his drawing “The Beats You Break Are Beautiful,” an elaborate web of a cartoon in which robotic figures engage in such exchanges as “I just love your new look” followed by “Shut up.” Floating sea creatures and drums and amplifiers emitting the beats of the title complete the possibly meaningless composition. (As with Jerry Seinfeld’s legendary “TV show about nothing,” I mean that description as a compliment.)
Steve Frenkel’s paintings of out-of-scale landscapes littered with vintage toys follow in this mood of possibly meaningless surreality. “Tidal Wash Trail,” for example, features toy tanks and ships, with a real zeppelin hovering overhead and a full-size dinghy anchored to the floor by ropes while being lifted skyward by toy balloons. It absolutely screams for interpretation, which it defeats successfully.
Animals seem to abound in “Illuminate,” in forms ranging from John Tindel’s historically tinged allegories to Greg Noblin’s formal photo portraits in which the cloudy backdrops appear courtesy of Photoshop. Ashley Schick’s striking paper-cutout images of goats and chickens in her “On the Farm” series seem like irresistibly retro evocations of vintage children’s books, until the appearance of a sign advertising “Lunch on the farm Monday-Friday 1:30 PM (at the Warhorse)” reveals that the farm in question is the Goat Farm Arts Center, where all the animals illustrated can be found roaming among the studios of printmakers and photographers.