June 2003





City Mouse/Country Mouse
8 March – 14 April 2003

Assembled by curator David Hunt, the 28 pieces of photography, video, painting and sculpture by emerging or recently established artists at Space 101 maul, manipulate and flatter nature, creating an arresting portrait of artists apprehensively seeking a balance between chaos and repression.

At the front of Space 101 are flora and fauna, while works in the back focus on urban visual and social systems. Grids and interior design dominate the images of the city, creating a cold sense of uninhabitable order. Most of the country images are comparably cool, although their subjects are sadder. In both instances, the images distance the artists from the brutal but sometimes fragile environments they present.

David Nicholson, The Dogs, 2003. Courtesy: the artist

That distance is depicted in David Nicholson's stunning and horrific painting, The Dogs. Representing bloodlust as a link between East and West, man and animal, The Dogs shows Anglo and Arab men hovering on horseback, watching pit bulls fight. While the fighting dogs rip each other's flesh, more dogs circle and salivate. Unlike other artists working with careful, dexterous representation, Nicholson creates paintings instead of imitating photographs or glossy computer imagery. Like Delacroix, he uses nature as a dictionary, replicating its appearance with masterful technique while elevating its intensity. He bridges the visual and literary to create brilliant paintings resounding with powerful insight. In this instance, the bestiality of the act and its fascination for the onlookers evoke emotions that are too tragically topical.

Where representation expresses the enormity and severity of Nicholson's ideas, the mechanics of kitsch exuberance infuse Bubonic Bling, Jeff Sonhouse's brilliant evocation of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, with potency as well as vibrancy. Sonhouse divides a large canvas into a grid in which his features stoically peer out from rhinestone and glitter variations on a gunman's ski mask. In contrast to the sparkle around them, Sonhouse's joyless eyes eloquently reject the deceptive pseudo-glamour surrounding the painful, identity-negating process of assimilation. Through Bling Bling, Sonhouse satirises contemporary African-American urban identity, too often represented by Puff Daddy's gangster mix of entrepreneur and thug. Like Puffy, Sonhouse wears dapper ties and broad pinstriped suits, but his face is obscured by the glitter, reducing him to no more than a caricature.

Peter Rostovsky's skilfully seductive painting Puzzle shows a Rubik's cube softened into cool architectural patterns, hovering while faintly supported in an atmosphere of cottony colour. The puzzle seems beyond mystery or frustration, like the Platonic ideal after which actual, imperfect Rubik's cubes are modelled. As an interactive toy, the cube embodies struggle and a desire to wrest order out of disarray, so the perfection of its smoothed-down appearance here renders it slightly ominous. Instead of reducing its capacity to create frustration, this idealised version seems to mock imperfection, creating an unexpected layer of social meaning. As the Rubik's cube's image dominates its hazy surroundings, its architectural structure begins to resemble a forbidding compound, perhaps impossible to enter by anyone but a select, albeit unknowable, few.

The posturing of wealth, as an unavoidable element of urban living, is charmingly mocked by G-Pots with Gems, Nicole Cherubini's ceramic pots, whose knurled shapes might replicate ocean growths or other organic forms but are ostentatiously adorned with Bling Bling gold chains. The incongruity between the rough clay forms and their vulgar, glittery decorations makes the gold pointless and comments ironically on how nature becomes part of urban culture through repackaging. The same disconnection is cartoonishly vamped by Ann Craven's intentionally clumsy contrast between the birds she paints in thick choppy strokes and their slick campy backgrounds. Her images of nature look as if she were painting with cake frosting and a spatula, while the patterns in the background could be cheap wallpaper. However, while the tensions in style could be compelling, her colours are too bombastic to be articulate. As a result, a nest of muddily painted birds interacting in front of gold stars on a white surface resembles an unhappy marriage between a Victorian hobbyist and the Dukes of Hazard.

Indulging in similar cutesy excess is Mick O'Shea's installation piece sprawled across the gallery's front room. O'Shea has built a series of walls sprouting fake greenery and enclosing an incoherent battle between the metropolis, represented by plastic army tanks, and the country, embodied in a line-up of swans. The swans were clearly taken from suburban lawns and the tanks are tiny green toys. Where O'Shea aims to synthesise urban and rural symbols, he only creates a jumble of disparate pieces in a style that is less Baroque than befuddled Las Vegas.

Adam Stennett, Underwater Mouse 1, 2003, oil on linen. Courtesy: the artist

In contrast, the tensions between city and country that O'Shea attempts to illustrate in his kiddy confrontation are addressed subtly and articulately by Adam Stennett's Underwater Mouse 1. This shadowy, soft painting gracefully depicts a rodent struggling not to drown as it sinks into brown water. The water is oily yet elegant, and the beautiful way each bubble blossoms testifies to Stennett's skill. But the meaning of the image is altered when the identity of the suffering animal is questioned. While it is called a mouse in the painting's trick title, the rodent is obviously a sewer rat, identifiable by its ropey tail. This distinction changes the viewer's readings to and reactions to the image. Mice and rats are both residents of city and country, but while a mortality allegory starring a mouse suggests a Beatrix Potter tender sentimentality, it is hard to feel sympathy for a rat. Rats are too intimate with urbanites. They are close to us, eat our waste, infiltrate our architecture and are physiologically similar enough to act as bellwethers of disease in Camus' The Plague. Thus, while a sinking mouse seems like a parable, the rat's drowning emphasises the distance between the frantic pace and social demands of urban life and a soothing mythology of nature crafted by children's stories. Like the best work in City Mouse/Country Mouse, Stennett's filthy victim stimulates atavistic fear and mocks our toxic attempts to transform nature.

Ana Finel Honigman

Source: Honigman, Ana Finel, NEW YORK: SPACE 101, City Mouse/Country Mouse, CONTEMPORARY, Reviews, June 2003, pp 80-81.