Conduit Gallery opened three solo shows last weekend, so this is a review in three acts.
Robert Barsamian's canvases are proportionally like television screens: Some are square, like the little sets propped on kitchen counters, and some follow the mold of the mini-movie screen. He has mastered a great range of influential styles, from pop art to portraiture to the classical still life, and many of the works in "3 Degrees of Separation" focus on a funny kind of mock-aggression by way of layer cake.
The base might mimic photography, then a realistic representation of an animal (bird, zebra) hovers in a tightly layered composition with disturbing graphics (target, arrow) and bullets that look like lipstick tubess. Others look like Old Master still lifes taken over by random critters (meerkats, fish).
But the showstoppers are Barsamian's political documentary pieces that turn the pain of war into a consumable vision that describes the misery of difference. Nagasaki is depicted here, and so is Afghanistan. But it is "War Dance," a quilt-like piece of ebony pencil and Prismacolor, that left me chilled to the freaking core. Here Barsamian puts a face to the raging tragedy of young children captured into rebel forces in Guinea and Sudan after their parents are slaughtered. Against a bright tapestry of simple animal drawings, three soldiers strut and preen with their rifles in the top of the picture plane; two tiny little boys, forced into the army, wade in the plane below them. The far right is sole domain of a little boy smoking a cigarette with a freakishly muscular arm, a rifle over his shoulder, sideburns, and dead eyes. We are told in the wall description next to the piece that kidnapped little girls become sex slaves to the soldiers, so the nonexistence of little girls in "War Dance" is not only an interesting choice, but the most chilling choice the artist could make. Barsamian doesn't try to win approval with the patently digestible tearjerker, but damn, does he dig in.
With fearless whimsy, Letitia Ernestina Gomez makes pages from her own fictional ancient storybooks. In one respect her work is about formal experimentation with size and material and color and obsessive patterns that walk the line of hieratic cartooning. Yet Gomez's illustrations seem to also give clues to higher meaning, where intricacy indicates form and characters that appear frail and childlike are anything but. Her tiny brown paper paintings in particular are charming, strange, and psychedelic, reminding me of the campy animated Beatles' movie Yellow Submarine.
There is a long tradition of folk art informing technique in the work of real live art school graduates. (Around these parts, SMU grad David Bates pops immediately to mind.) Artist K.C. Collins is ten years out of the prestigious Pratt Institute and now living in Austin, where his seriously trained eye is making pictures that blend Mexican folk painting with the jagged shards of Cubism. His five still-life paintings in Conduit's small Project Room contain flattened objects that may be identifiable desktop chotchkes or may only suggest some discernably Texan object - a household cactus, a random animal skull, a potential Lone Star beer bottle, maybe a geode, possibly some nice adobe pottery, etc. The space can only accommodate a taste of Collins' work, but that also allows for easy absorption of these promising, vibrant pieces.
Barsamian: 3 Degrees of Separation, Leticia Ernestina Gomez: Strange Days, Old Times, and Project Room: K.C. Collins run concurrently through January 5, 2013, at Conduit Gallery in the Design District.