by Shawn Daniell
After last month’s lackluster experience at The Carnegie’s Art of Food, I was looking for something a little less mainstream. I was looking for something off the beaten path. I desired something fun and quirky. I’m always searching for new galleries or spaces that don’t see a lot of coverage. During one of my many forays on the internet I came across a relatively new gallery, Popp=d Art, located on Short Vine, close to the University of Cincinnati campus in Corryville. I was immediately drawn in by the gallery’s description on Facebook, “This is no stuffy gallery, this grunge chic space draws all into its doors to view amazing art, as well as have fun doing it.” Popp=d Art, which opened in October of 2013, is owned by Melissa Mitchell and has a full line of art exhibits scheduled through the end of the year. The current show Metazoa features the artwork of three local artists, Zach Kesterann, Ryan Young, and Geri Shield, with a focus on animal inspired artwork. As the announcement says, this exhibit explores “the curiosities of the animal kingdom, the complicated relationship between man and fauna, and the mythos that civilization has attributed to nature’s creatures.”
I was the first one at the gallery space on the Friday night opening. The space is decently sized, and is perfect for solo and smaller group shows. At my arrival, foot traffic was light to say the least. Corryville is one of those areas of Cincinnati that is in the process of reviving itself, with recent openings of galleries like Tony Dotson’s 71 Gallery and Mitchell’s Popp=d Art, along with restaurants slated for opening later this year. I can see smart drugs online this area, home of Bogarts, as a spot where younger crowds and gallery viewers with a taste for something a little less mainstream than your average gallery fare will gather. Hopefully this rejuvenation will be successful. There will always be a need for new galleries and spaces in which artists can show their artwork.
As I walked around the gallery, I was immediately drawn to Geri Shields’ pieces, delightfully cute and yet simmering with something a little twisted. Shields, a 2005 graduate of The Art Academy of Cincinnati, is a painter, illustrator, and graphic designer. In Harbinger, acrylic on canvas, an adorable kitty scampers down the road with a large full moon sitting in the background. This kitty wears a plague mask, reminiscent of a plague doctor’s protective facial equipment. With each piece Shields includes a description explaining her inspiration. According to an old Irish superstition, if a black cat crosses your path in moonlight, you will die of the plague. But surely this innocent kitten was no harbinger of the plague. But believe it or not during the time of the Black Plague in England cats and dog were believed to be carriers of the plague and many were killed. Turned out it was the fleas on rats that were the real villains. Shields’ paintings weave together cute creatures with myths, folktales, and fairy tales, creating an interesting dialogue concerning animals and their relationships and history with humans.
Ryan Young, a local artist who studied illustration and design at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, works with ink and acrylic on archival paper and wood stain on wood. For me, Young’s stylistic approach to his artwork is what drew me in. I love the attention he pays to his illustrations. In Domestication, a horizontal wood piece, the bust of an older woman is linked to a chain-like rope that connects at the bottom to a circular shape (like a bird perch) where a gray and orange-red bird sits, staring angrily at the viewer. A gray snake is coiled around the chain. Perhaps the older woman is supposed to represent womankind with the snake serving as a Garden of Eden reference. Maybe the woman represents an aged figure of Mother Nature. The woman looks away with a sad look in her eyes. Her gray hair is piled beautifully atop her head as gorgeous tendrils curl off to the right of the panel. I can’t help seeing this as a meditation of what humankind has done to Mother Nature. Her face, once lovely, is rife with wrinkles and age scars, bringing to mind ideas of how humankind has whittled away our natural resources. The color palette is muted with even the orange-red of the bird lacking brilliance. However you interpret Domestication, it left me with a haunted feeling, drawing me back to look at it again and again. In his other works such as GMO, Young explores hybrid creatures or monsters, created perhaps from man’s abuse of nature and technology for advancement. In the ever maddening world which we live in, perhaps we have gone too far, in essence becoming greedy God-like creatures. The question suddenly becomes, who’s the real monster?
Zach Kestermann, who graduated in 2006 from The Art Academy of Cincinnati, channels the wrath felt by animals in response to humankind’s disrespect and abuse. In Nomp!, acrylic on canvas, a crazed raccoon screams as he holds a skinless and meatless human skull. These aren’t fearful screams, but angry, enraged bellows. I saw this painting as a call to arms. When I first approached Kestermann’s painting, I was troubled by the sheer rage and death imagery I saw within his paintings, but the more I looked at them, the more I sympathized with the animals. Humankind has messed with the natural world for a long time. In Kestermann’s paintings the animals have finally had enough and have waged war against us. And it ain’t pretty.
However you interpret the artwork on display in Metazoa, the end result reminds us that our relationship with nature isn’t as peaceful or as pure as we would like to see it. On the first Friday of the month, Popp=d Art opens a brand new exhibit with a new artist. If you miss an opening, you can make an appointment for a private showing. I’ll be checking out their other shows in the future. For more information you can visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/poppedartgallery