(Clockwise from top left) “Bear-Jaguar,” by Gustavo Martinez; “Harmon Brewery,” a microbrew assemblage by Bobbie Stretton Ritter; “Coyotes” by Lavonne Hoivik; and “Iron Horse,” another microbrew assemblage by Bobbie Stretton Ritter. Photos by Dave R. Davison
(Clockwise from top left) “Bear-Jaguar,” by Gustavo Martinez; “Harmon Brewery,” a microbrew assemblage by Bobbie Stretton Ritter; “Coyotes” by Lavonne Hoivik; and “Iron Horse,” another microbrew assemblage by Bobbie Stretton Ritter. Photos by Dave R. Davison

As part of its annual cycle of shows, The Gallery at Tacoma Community College includes a themed exhibit in which local artists are asked to contribute work related to a given theme.

Group shows are always a hodge-podge affair, but some of these exhibits have resulted in interesting collections of work that, in total, manage to poke, prod and examine the given theme from a multitude of angles and perspectives. 2016’s “Sugar and Spice” show is an example of a successful and exciting themed exhibition.

Sometimes, however, the theme is so broad that the resulting show is confused and unwieldy. Such is the case with this year’s theme of “culture.” The term is so expansive that the show, entitled “Culture,” is broken up and falls into confusion.

Some of the artists look at “culture” in the National Geographic magazine sense, as a look at the exotic ways of other peoples. Thus, there is everything from Rick Mahaffey’s Japanese tea ceremony paraphernalia to Lavonne Hoivik’s characteristically gawky, long-legged ceramic coyotes decorated with designs copied from Native American petroglyphs. In a similar vein, we find Marilyn Mahoney’s bronze miniatures of figures from a New Orleans street band – done in a naive style that brings to mind rustic metal sculptures of the 1970s. Other displays of culture as something foreign is Mahoney’s bronze “Whirling Dervish” and Karen Benveniste’s amateur painting of a “Moroccan Man.”

Even painter Frank Dippolito harkens to exotic others in “Welcome to Missouri” in which he marvels at the peculiar juxtaposition of religious and pornographic images experienced on a road trip through the American Deep South. 

David Keyes’ “King Leopold II’s Legacy” is a huge rusty and rustic thing featuring castings of hands in light cages. In the commentary, Keyes conjures up the gruesome history of amputations that have erupted in Central Africa at least since colonial times.

Other artists, regarding themselves as being outside the mainstream – and hence, as members of sub-cultures – use “culture” as a thing of personal identity. “Culture” becomes merged with issues or race and ethnicity. Aligned with this understanding of “culture” are works like Patsy Surh O’ Connell’s “Immigrant, the New Arrival,” a painting that symbolically represents Asian migration to America. Beverly Naidus’ “Other: Breaking Out of the Box” consists of pages from a digital art book that gives glimpses into moments of misunderstanding and resentment surrounding Jewishness in relation to the mainstream. Gustavo Martinez, meanwhile, has contributed one of his powerful ceramic creatures, “Bear-Jaguar,” which seems to have arisen from the pre-Columbian past to offer itself as a personal encounter with the type of powerful and fascinating forces encountered and personified in the dream state.

Yet other artists take culture in its refined sense, as a thing cultivated through education and appreciation of the fine arts. Marit Berg’s photo collage of a Pablo Picasso painting, an African carving and a rococo table (called “The Art Market”), pokes fun at this meaning of the term. Dippolito’s painting “Antique Room (What was Matisse Thinking?)” refers the viewer to Henri Matisse’s many paintings of the interiors of his various art studios. Mary Beth Hynes’ porcelain sculptures of female nudes, meanwhile, hearken to the high culture of the renaissance and of classical Greece and Rome.

There are artists in the show that equate culture with humanity and simply depict the human being as the embodiment of culture. Relevant to this category are the watercolors of gatherings of people by Barbara Patterson and a large painting of a man merged with a formation of rocks by Hart James. Christine Parent’s “One Voice” is a collection of bun-like human heads, of various hue, set on a disk painted with a map of the world. They are supposed to be singing in harmony, but they could as easily be heads on a platter à la King Herod and Salome.

There are artists for whom “culture” means contemporary life. Anthony Clang’s photograph “Scene” is a brilliant snatching of a visual moment. A Sikh bus driver in a turban is navigating a Sound Transit double decker bus. George Hoivik, on the other hand, presents contemporary culture as the force that leads to destruction. His bronze sculpture “Global Warming: Sun, Moon and Earth” is an awkward take on the “Dancing Shiva” statue of ancient India. Just as Shiva dances the world into destruction, so Hoivik’s rather comical bronze man is the one who brings about global warming in an act of self-destruction.

Much of the work in the show is less easily categorized as belonging to one or another definition of “culture.” There are political protest works like Irene Osborn’s ceramic sculpture of an immigrant mother clutching her baby and screaming. And there is a pair of Lynette Charters’ feminist works from her missing women series in which antique paintings of women subjects are recreated on wood panels. The women are left out of the picture, leaving only the wood grains and the knots of the raw surface to stand in for them. 

Bobbie Stretton Ritter’s series of colorful and delightful assemblages, each featuring a bottle from one of the local microbreweries, can be said to be an examination of the micro culture of Tacoma’s microbrew industry. But they might also be about yeast culture as about anything human.

In a group show, there are always plenty of interesting things to see (and read – I particularly enjoyed reading Martinez’s story about Bear-Jaguar. Reading the story was the single most striking experience that I had in my viewing of the show). Overall, however, the exhibit is very uneven in regard to the quality of the work. The show also has a disjointed, disorienting feel that makes it easy to forget that there is any theme at all.

The formal artists’ reception takes place Jan. 17, 4-6 p.m. “Culture” runs through March 15, with artists’ talks scheduled to take place throughout the run of the show.

For more information, visit www.tacomacc.edu/tcc-life/arts-culture/the-art-gallery.

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