There is a crackpot lonesomeness to the work of Deborah Davidson and Maurice Gray, the artists currently showing at Sue Greenwood Fine Art. I don’t mean to suggest these two are shut-in eccentrics; for all I know, they enjoy busy social lives. But their art suggests the kind of aching solitude that can lead one to complicated, crazy ideas. This stuff looks like it was made by people who own way too many cats.
Gray’s mixed-media canvases and sculptures look old and moldy in the best way, like the oddities a brilliant asylum inmate would make from bits of newspaper, broken twigs, spoiled milk and wads of chewing gum. His titles appear to have been selected for maximum off-putting creepiness (I Know You’re in There, for instance). It Was 5 Years Ago Tomorrow is a ratty-looking, doll-sized house with a tree growing through it and an actual five-year diary displayed on a little shelf mounted outside. Something tells you you’ll be better off if you don’t read it.
At a glance, Davidson’s paintings look blandly pretty—unpeopled scenes of stuff left on the shore at low tide; still lifes of keys, bird nests, glass jars. But the more you look at her work, the more surreal and troubling it becomes. That rubbish left on the shore seems to have strange, supernatural properties. Attraction depicts a jury-rigged, wooden structure holding up a sack; a large, golden ring hovers over the sack, and birds are flying through the ring and into the sack. We can’t guess what’s going on here, but surely no good can come of it. Be Home is even more disturbing, a window into a fallen world with a roiling, sickly green sky and a twisty bird’s nest where the sun is supposed to be. It’s like a scenic post card from the Hades giftshop: “Having a terrible time. Glad you’re not here.”
Some of Davidson’s work could almost be taken for the kind of simple, competent still lifes you see by the dozens in a college-level painting class. Pinned features a striped paper airplane tacked onto fancy red wallpaper, and she has a couple of paintings of New Year’s Eve party horns. But taken together with the other pieces in the show, these simple images take on a more sinister quality. Why is that paper airplane pinned to the wall, like a butterfly mounted in a collector’s case? Who thought that was a good idea?
Then there are the real puzzlers, such as River of Sticks, in which a little rowboat sits atop a wooden block in the middle of shallow, stagnant waters, surrounded by floating matches the size of logs. Pieces such as Milk and Blood (depicting two glass jars filled with the titular substances) look like something from the desk of a voodoo priestess, or a mad scientist, or perhaps some sort of crazy, self-taught voodoo-scientist. Even if I didn’t like Davidson’s art, I’d be tempted to give it a good review out of fear of her making a little Greg Stacy doll and sticking pins in it.
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Across town, Stephen Anderson’s “Amusings, Hauntings, Wantings” solo show at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art continues the weird science vibe, although this weird scientist seems less Doctor Frankenstein and more Doc Brown. Anderson uses video, weathered engravings and complicated, unfolding contraptions to examine the nature of consciousness and unpack the human mind. He asks the deep questions about existence and doubts the deep doubts, but if all you’re looking for is neato gizmos, he’s down with that, too.
Appropriately Complex is like an educational pop-up book from the fourth dimension, perhaps a tesseract version of Gray’s Anatomy (the medical textbook, not the nighttime soap). Anderson does interesting things in this show with paper cut-outs boinging off of the walls. There are old-timey illustrations of skulls and hearts, panels from yellowing comic strips, and helpful little signs you can’t quite understand. Viewing all this, I was reminded of a visit I paid years ago to the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition in Hollywood, an astonishing place where animatronic aliens creak to life and describe the horrors humankind will endure once the aliens land and enslave us. So far, Anderson has yet to come up with his own complex, science-fictional religion to share with the world. But give the man time . . .
Deborah Davidson and Maurice Gray at Sue Greenwood Fine Art, 330 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-0669; www.suegreenwoodfineart.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Nov. 30; Stephen Anderson’s “Amusings, Hauntings, Wantings” at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 Sycamore St., Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517; www.occca.org. Open Thurs.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.; call for Fri.-Sat. evening availability. Through Nov. 29.