By: Keith Banner

In “Funny Mirrors,” a three-person show at AEC Gallery in Covington, Kentucky, Billy Simms drains a clown’s life of all color and joy, creating a wall-novel out of wood-block relief prints that is both astoundingly sad and gleefully sinister.  The way his bit of the show is hung, along a hallway at the back of the gallery, gives the whole enterprise a jagged, sweetly corrupt sort of claustrophobia that seems to bounce right out of the storyline:  a clown being summarily crucified by an angry mob.  As you walk past and through the novel on the wall, you have to make considerations for the bathrooms, and then a little back area where there are chairs and a table with some non-profit brochures on it, and then POW:  right back into the saga.  At the end of the story you’re really not edified in anyway, or even entertained.  It’s more like you’ve witnessed someone testifying at a very serious clown trial without using words.  Just eerie pictographs, like a storyboard blending of a really good Law and Order episode with scenes from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari salvaged from the cutting room floor.

Kafka must have been whispering in Simms’s ear when he made the 42 prints that make up the whole exhibit.  His simple, streamlined pessimism has a verve and bite that makes you even more appreciative of the sweeter side the other artists ( Jeff Casto and Helena Cline) in the show explore.  Casto makes chunky, riotous reliefs out of thrown-away plastic ephemera, creating Toyland tableaus that have a Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse edge, a creepy charm that glitters from the way all that stuff is arranged so lovingly.  Clines’ paintings have a whimsy and trippiness that merge Frieda Kahlo and Gustav Klimt.  She seems to be making treasure maps out of biological memories.

Memories haunt Ryan Mulligan’s show at PAC Gallery in Walnut Hills.  “Inventories & Diagrams” is an exercise in storybook kitsch, but done so beautifully and elegantly that you feel Mulligan’s piecemeal visual trances are happening some place other than Candyland.  Each of his painting/drawings tries to reconfigure and reconstitute a stream-of-consciousness that starts with the everyday world and ends with total bliss, often shaded by a pastel-colored irony.  Shapes, words, and imagery all seem to melt into one another, and then through an evolutionary process become Mulligan’s sweet little trademarks for childhood and meaning.  In fact, childhood and meaning are interchangeable in his oeuvre.  The center of Mulligan’s universe is a vocabulary spoken by cartoons, but hardened into fine art by a process of elimination.

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In “Bedtime Is the Right Time,” Mulligan riffs on the ritual of trying to put a kid to bed, conjuring a whiteboard in which doodles and words hint at the impossible, but also seem completely comfortable with the twee.  In this piece, and in all the others in the show, Mulligan is a gem-crack designer and appropriator, amalgamating Saul Bass’ penchant for rugged bluesy logos with Wassily Kandinsky’s visual Modern Art symphonies and John K’s Ren and Stimpy postmodern slyness.

At times Mulligan’s paintings and drawings look like a Surrealist redesigning of the backs of cereal boxes (with some of Mulligan’s small sculptures resembling the ambiguous but charming toys at the bottom of the boxes).  And then other pieces, like “Dad Bag for the Flight,” have a stately yet whimsical sadness to them.   “Dad Bag” is a visual list of stuff a dad might take on a business trip, but channeled through an imagination that transforms banality into an aquarium of exotic fish.

Mulligan is very interested in cutting to the chase in his work:  imagery on white, without anything to get in the way.  And in the nebulous, kindhearted landscape of his art, he clarifies without defining, turning child’s play into a board-game for adults.

“SOS Art,” which finished its nine-day run on June 10 at the Cincinnati Art Academy, is not at all about ambiguity.  The brainchild of Saad Ghosn, the show is in its tenth year, and is billed as “an annual community art show and event of creative expressions for peace and justice, involving Greater Cincinnati artists.”  Since the exhibit features over 200 artists in a wide array styles and modes, it truly isn’t about one individual artist or work shining through.  “SOS Art,” which also offers art-making activities and musical programs, is about testifying to the resilience of belief, the power to persuade people that art can be something other than commerce and ego.  It’s a celebration of a communal glow that relies on the conviction that making art can sometimes be as influential and necessary as occupying Wall Street, or having a Tea Party outside the White House.

But I did have a favorite piece as I walked through:  Robbie Mraz’s “Drinking Is Not Fun.”  A sixth grader from Mount Washington, Mraz’s piece, like Mulligan’s and Simms’s work, has a simplified thoroughness to it, as if it was just meant to be, whether or not it means anything.  The title gives Mraz’ work a literalness, but the painting itself does all the work:  the smeared frown, the anonymous and yet menacing brown bottle, the knocked-out Justin-Bieber hair.  All of it combines into an unpretentious but somehow stylishly kick-ass visual statement, like a billboard in a dream.


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