Solo Exhibition 2005 Photos/Artist's Statement  •  Thumbnails  •  Slideshow

A vision neither past nor present

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Oregonian

Most noteworthy artists usually reflect one or two of several prevailing movements going on at a given moment. But others, such as Roger Kukes, catch public attention because their work isn't aligned with those by contemporaries. Their art seems to have emerged from a cocoon, independent of the latest or most recent buzz.

Kukes' new exhibit of drawings and works on paper at Augen Gallery doesn't follow any trend-setting local or national movement. And yet the work is as adventurous and far out as any offering at a commercial gallery this month.

In a word, Kukes' work is pan-historical, defying literal conventions of time and place. That also means his works on paper, made usually with graphite, watercolor and ink, are wildly improbable in what they portray.

Landscapes conjure both pre-historic and futuristic worlds. Bugs and machines abound, as do bugs that also look like machines or vice-versa. Native Americans and American cavalry on horses duke it out on dark, apocalyptic terrain that could have been lifted from "The Matrix."

Kukes used to be a film animator, a profession that he gave up in the 1980s in order to pursue studio art and teaching. His work has a flaring, graphic quality, and is full of slashing figures and forms, as well as blazing color you might find emanating from a television tuned into Saturday morning children's programming. And every inch of each work seems crammed with detail, from the infinitesimal bristles of tiny cactuses to the skin color of snakes.

This is Kukes' third solo show in the past 11 years, all of them at Augen. And like his previous exhibits, this one offers a vision that seemingly exists in a place that is neither past nor future. Called "The Theater of the Land," the show imagines a heightened Western landscape: In "They Were as Steadfast as They Were Cruel," gigantic cavalry officers, wolves, skeletal animals and Indians converge on a train traveling through some dark land in one work. In "They Rode Eastward," hat-wearing bugs, creatures with industrial tubes as bodies and lightning bolts the shape of huge tree branches shape a Hieronymus Bosch-like vision of a place that could be the belly of the Earth opening up. These works amount to Kukes' revisionist acid history of the West that is both ferocious and comic.

Calling these images illustrations is like describing Matt Groening's "The Simpsons" as cartoons. Kukes' influences are as wide ranging as canyons: Cartoons from the 1950s, the films of the French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the works of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, the graphic exercises of M.C. Escher, even the existential words of Cormac McCarthy in Kukes' deadpan captions for some pieces. At the bottom of "They Rode Eastward," for instance, is this odd beauty: "They rode eastward in loose formation, into an oily wind, toward the smoke and the thunder and their fate. It's a good day to die."

These idiosyncratic pieces are so odd and weird that it's hard to believe anyone else is making work remotely in the same artistic precinct. But there are similarities to a few locals, notably Eric Stotik's hyperdetailed blending of cartoon and Renaissance imagery, Jay Backstrand's psychological, cinematic tableaux, even Henk Pander's grand panoramas of doom and wonder.

But comparisons are merely a way to approach someone's work, to make the act of looking less intimidating and more familiar. Kukes stands mostly in his own peculiar category. Augen Gallery, 817 S.W. Second Ave. 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closes Dec. 31.

2006 The Oregonian