By Erin C. Messer
It’s 5:45 p.m. and civilization has yet to fall to its discontents, but in 15 minutes things are going to get savage. Artist and curator Neal Breton is resplendent in signature beard and tuxedo T, ready for his public. Indie darlings and vintage vamps, cowboys and collectors, families with children, and everyone in between will pack Studios on the Park for this riotous opening. By the end of the night, an impromptu dance party will have broken out to the music of DJ Malik. Let the wild rumpus begin.
All of this is for the Savages, a (very) loose collective of local artists in their teens to 30s. Breton identifies 20 artists new to the show this year, and hopes for a similar turnover next year: “It’s a very precious moment in time for me because I’ve met all these people and I have faith and I love all of these artists like they’re my family … and for this one special moment I’m able to share that with the public.”
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer encounters two installations that present themselves for immediate attention. Makers & Allies’ Red S is a web of Americana objects—including saws, scissors, wood, and the body of a guitar—all painted a distinctly savage red. Its existence in the gallery seems inevitable, but Breton attests to the opposite.
“Eric Valdez and myself—he’s one of the participating artists—were like Egyptian slaves hoisting this giant, 150-pound “S” to the ceiling … finally it was done, and it was beautiful.”
The second major installation is Nick Wilkinson’s Sculpture Garden, a series of large-scale painted wooden sculptures. Dreamland and Please, Please, Please, two of Wilkinson’s canvases firmly rooted in Op Art and the 1980s, accompany the sculptures to provide a visual key. Hesitant gallery-goers peek around the corner, unsure how to look at these structures spilling out into the front window.
After this initial wave of dynamism, the bulk of the show—consisting mostly of pieces conforming to the 16-by-20-inch guideline provided by Breton—comes into focus. Plagued, Lena Rushing’s contribution, features a bespectacled, finger-waved professoressa in a dottore della peste-cum-steampunk mask and claw hand, equal parts heroine and villain. Walt Hall’s deftly wrought Fly Away Cloud Birds makes elegant and clever use of stock symbols. Dueling Whiskers (Beardyman Series #1), an unexpectedly sweet offering from Alani Chavez, depicts a man made of beard with purple cats poking their heads out at odd angles. This level of infestation might unnerve some, but the look on Beardyman’s face is decidedly beatific. Nearby, Drew Davis’ Set Free embodies the physical spirit of the show—if the figure in the painting is a savage, I want to be one, too.
Ty Hjortland’s signcraft-inspired piece 99 Cents beckons the viewer from across the gallery, exactly as signs are meant to do. Yet it refuses to offer easy visual satisfaction, allowing words to partially disappear beneath each other. Its reference to the trick of setting prices just under the nearest dollar points to the economy we are losing, but also to the more open market we hope to gain and the re-appropriation of “Main Street” skills where those of “Wall Street” have failed. To put a point (literally) on this message is Jamie Coxon’s Big Up, a wooden arrow with a mirror at its center, answering with skill of execution the loose, casual feeling of Wilkinson’s Sculpture Garden. Big Up immediately implicates its audience—you cannot avoid seeing yourself in it.
As you move toward the end of the corridor past Red S, you can see the first half of the gallery through the negative space of the piece. Here Eric Valdez’s Hey You, New Wave simultaneously references the French Nouvelle vague and the late ’70s/early ’80s music movement with a figure reminiscent of Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (“My Life to Live,” a fitting message for the show).
Opposite hangs No Class Artist Collective’s large-scale graffiti piece reading “NOTHING’S COOL ANYMORE,” a clever nod to the commercialization of graffiti and street art. “I wanted a real, dyed-in-the-wool spray paint mural,” says Breton, although he was unable to secure permission to paint directly onto gallery walls. The raw edges of the resulting canvas send a clear message: We work right up to the selvage.
Throughout the exhibit, the overwhelming impression is that nowhere else is anyone looking at this same thing at this same moment.
“What’s great about Paso is that it’s such an open market,” Breton says of the art scene north of the grade and its opportunities for up-and-coming SLO artists. “There’s a lot of really amazingly talented people in this little town—you wouldn’t think so, it’s pretty unassuming … but there’s a lot of angsty artists here. Which is good.
“We’ll never have the same show twice,” Breton assures me. Let’s hope not.
Take a walk on the wild side
“Savages” runs Thursdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 9 p.m., through March 30 at Studios on the Park, 1130 Pine St. in Paso Robles. For more information call 238-9800 or visit studiosonthepark.org.