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Calculating Our Risks

Three artists take on the world.

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Heatstroke, an example of painter Jan Hankins’ surreal landscapes
In his latest curatorial project, "Calculus of Risk" showing at Delta Axis at Marshall Arts, David Hall (Flyer art critic, artist, and artists' advocate) has brought together the apocalyptic landscape paintings of Memphian Jan Hankins, the contorted metal work of St. Louis sculptor Arny Nadler, and the street portraits of Memphis photographer James Looney. These are artists who dare to look the world full in the face and visually depict what they find there.

For the past decade, Jan Hankins has created surreal landscapes that are a mix of politically astute cartoon caricatures, realistic renderings similar to 1930s WPA workers' murals, richly layered images suggestive of the recesses of the human mind, and apocalyptic scenes of ecological devastation and geopolitical terrorism that take impressionistic renderings of color and light to hell and beyond.

In Hankins' painting 9-1-1, for example, white-hot flames consume buildings and machinery. All that remains is a graceful mechanical grid of incandescent pipeline. Five scorched clarion horns are covered with a purple and yellow patina, and charred, skeletal heads of demons replace the stars on a Confederate flag. The horns (once specially purchased by automobile owners for their clear, sharp, and ringing sounds) blare out the roles that outmoded cultural prejudices play in misunderstanding, hatred, and acts of violence. 9-1-1's red and orange flames with their white-hot tips create the impression of a tiger's face, complete with white cheek tufts and a roaring, sharp-fanged mouth. The tiger's roar is probably ironic as well as fierce: Exxon tiger paraphernalia proliferates as the animal's natural habitat and resources disappear.

Hankins is an accomplished realist, surrealist, impressionist, and caricaturist. His incredibly complex, layered colors and designs are mesmerizing testaments to geopolitical truths as bizarre, convoluted, and frightening as they may sometimes be.

James Looney's photographs looks into the face of humankind, carrying on the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who waited for the decisive moment to capture the significance of an event. Looney's artistic relationship to the world is similar to other American street photographers including Robert Frank and Brian Robertson, who speak of capturing "the blues, jazz, and Zen" of social landscapes.

Two of Looney's most technically accomplished and emotionally powerful photographs are Perennial and Fuzzy. In Perennial, late-sunset colors and the headlights of a passing automobile refract through a plate-glass window to color a butcher shop mauve and dusty green. The vertical line of the shop's edge thrusts toward the viewer and divides the photograph into two worlds: One world is inside the shop, where the owner, according to the artist's statement, is losing patience with Canadian governmental policies that fail to deal with the problems of the homeless and drug-addicted; outside is the second world, where a homeless woman stands on a sidewalk and stares through the window at the carcasses of chickens and cows. Her shoulders and lower lip are slack. There is no slight smile of expectation. There is no movement toward the shop. (Street people are not allowed inside the world on the right.) Looney's definitive photograph captures the failing light and sense of little time, the distorted colors and perceptions, the hard lines of class division and political thinking, and the paralysis of the will to act, both in the homeless woman and her country. The photograph is a powerful outline of significant problems facing the modern world.

In Fuzzy, Looney aims his camera into a group of young students smoking and talking at a city park. To their left is the front torso of a man dressed in blue jeans who adopts the swaggering predatory stance of a drug dealer. (Notice the suggestive hand gesture across his crotch.) He is telling his friend what he intends to do to the students once they get messed up on the crack he has just delivered to them. The two casually but nicely dressed young women look comfortable and assured. They're just experimenting. They're just getting a rush before they graduate from a British Columbia culinary school and settle into a professional routine. One of them will overdose and die within the week.

The titles of St. Louis sculptor Arny Nadler's work suggest drama. One Immigrant makes a journey in the hope of something better. He strikes out on his own (Lone). He has an accident and dies before he reaches his destination. He is later Found on Site. But his friends and family never know what happened because the remains at the crash site are Beyond Recognition.

Nadler's tubular-steel studies with their unexpected twists and turns are reminiscent of American David Smith's 1950s metal calligraphy. Like the new British sculptors, including Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon, Nadler's artwork alludes to both engineered forms (airplane wings, crutches, clutches, and shoulder straps) and biomorphic shapes (torsos, pelvises, and rib cages). Nadler's particular power lies in his ability to translate these elements into a pathos suggestive of classical Greek drama in some future civilization where life-forms have become a seamless combination of the mechanical and biological. These futuristic entities are sleek and swift, but they are still subject to pilot error and mechanical failure. In spite of their advanced design, they are like Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. There is daring, imagination, tragedy (and probably a bit of hubris) in these crash sites. Nadler believes there is also hope: "Twisted in the wreckage is more than mere failure. Through trial and error, regrouping and, most importantly, will, future attempts follow. They have to. Progress, after all, depends on it."

Take a risk. Get to know some of the people in Looney's worlds. Pilot one of Nadler's crashed sculptures (whose wounded shapes still contain tremendous tensile energy) to a safe zone that advances science but also protects the natural world. And look into your own psyche as you explore the densely layered Rorschachs of the American and global mind contained in Hankins' apocalyptic visions.

"Calculus of Risk," at Marshall Arts through June 6th.

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