Searching Urban Scrapbooks
By Tom Wachunas
EXHIBIT: RUMMAGE – works by Kat Francis and Steve Ehret, THROUGH AUGUST 14, 2016, at the Little Art Gallery, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio / 330.499.4712 Ex. 312 / www.northcantonlibrary.com
In the statement accompanying this exhibit, there is a reference to the “untidy mass” of mark making and layered imagery resulting from the artists’ rummaging through their respective personal experiences and perceptions. So, exploring the distinctly different iconographic content and stylistic approaches of Kat Francis and Steve Ehret can be like flipping through their conceptual “scrapbooks” of what I’ll call, for the moment at least, an urban Zeitgeist.
The display case that immediately faces visitors upon entering the gallery houses Kat Francis’ elaborate assemblage of miniature houses and other buildings made from collaged or painted corrugated board and wood, effectively evoking a ramshackle city neighborhood in decline. The piece sets a mood for many of her 2D pieces – a collection of wispy oil paintings along with mixed media works that incorporate collage and exquisite graphite drawing.
In these, she has rendered urban landscapes, with figural elements, in varying states of unity or disarray. Her pictures aren’t seamless panoramas, but rather disjointed (some more than others) in a manner that suggests scattered or stacked puzzle pieces. Whether they’re coming together, as in being rescued and rehabbed, or falling into permanent distress, Francis’ depicted neighborhoods and environments can exude a considerable range of emotional connections - from nostalgia and affection, or sadness and mourning, to celebration and hope.
Despite the fragmented compositional format of her imagery, Francis’ representational drawing style is nonetheless one of elegant, refined detail. In counterpoint to the tonal subtlety of her pictures, Steve Ehret’s mixed media drawings are more direct and bold in their black-and-white linearity. Predominantly figural in nature, his compositions have a spirit of impromptu theatricality, with groups of “individuals” clustered together and piled into the tight confines of shallow pictorial space. Even at their most whimsical, these aren’t warm and fuzzy creatures from a fairy tale or an enchanted forest. They are, as I see them, city dwellers of one sort or another. They’re a wildly diverse population of strange, cartoonish beings – humanoid, robotic, even monstrous, or goofy hybrids – that perhaps could be read as Ehret’s subconscious manifestations of the angst, gluttonous excesses, or darker underpinnings of city life. These denizens of dreams and nightmares are most spectacularly compelling in his surreal oil painting on wood panel, “Daydreams Often Morph into Night Terrors”.
Interestingly, this marvelously executed piece – replete with intense, edge-to-edge saturated colors under a glossy finish - literally jumps off the wall in contrast to every other work in the exhibit. Otherwise, a highly noticeable element common to both artists’ works here is the overall airiness of their compositions, many of them with lots of empty white “negative space”.
I’m reminded that really looking at art can often be an illuminating exercise in vicarious living. Here, it’s that white emptiness, that missing layer or picture, which serves quite effectively as an invitation for us as viewers to glue on to the scrapbook page, as it were, our own perceptions and memories. Thus we might become not merely passive observers, but active partakers of the artists’ experiences.
PHOTOS, from top: Daydreams Often Morph into Night Terrors, oil on wood panel, by Steve Ehret; Chittenden Ave. and Grant, mixed media by Kat Francis; Tonight We Cook!, India Ink and watercolor, by Steve Ehret; Cleveland, The Flats, Part I, oil on panel, by Kat Francis