Ironic age

Amusing, accessible 'POP!' lacks bite

Ariana Huggett's "Dawn" (1998)

Though the three Milwaukee artists in POP! Goes the ... at City Gallery East are being presented in terms of their relationship to their '60s Pop precursors - Lichtenstein, Warhol, Johns, Oldenburg and Indiana - their work just as often taps into the retro fascination of the more contemporary comics anthologized in Raw, Kenny Scharf, style-heavy yuks like "Ren and Stimpy," graffiti art and the hackneyed Squaresville iconography of Dick and Jane.

The Pop obsession with deconstructing the daily visual barrage of advertisements, products and other cacophonous 20th-century drek also is evident in works like Chris Niver's minimalist acid-colored frames for a non-existent picture or punchline and Ariana Huggett's kitschy wooden plaques. With their playful intersection of pattern and festive color, Huggett's punchy minis feature line drawings of ordinary objects: onions, kitty, bananas, hairdryer, which replace the brand name specificity of Brillo and Campbells and identifiable Marilyns and Jackies with a fanciful but vague interest in pattern and whimsical illustration.

Recalling Lichtenstein's benday-baring enlargements of romance comics, Niver's neat, smartly drawn black-and-white woodcuts break down both the form of the comic and the content. A regular Joe in nerd spectacles and gray flannel suit, the figure in Niver's drawings undergoes mild psychological disturbance far calmer than the comic repertoire of "Socko!" and "Pow!" In Niver's introspective vignettes, dramatic action is more of the stammering Woody Allen "Opps" and "Uhmmm ..." variety. "Seethe," "Nod," "Curse" and that old damper on the workday "Bud" (in which Niver's Everyman's skull goes pinhead) define the small-scale imbroglios of this comic nebbish. Such crises of masculinity, in which fellas also have a tendency to watch their heads burst into flames, seem reaffirmed by Niver's assertion across the gallery way of Superman's comparably introspective moods. In one especially funny piece, the still hunky but much more tender Man of Steel has a little cuddle with a deer on the forest floor, displaying PETA sensitivity beneath Crime Fighter physique.

With his comic-inspired thought bubbles left confoundingly blank, migrating patterns and amorphously blobbish objects, Niver seems interested in scrambling the codes of comic strip storytelling. That element of Niver's work - boiling down visual plotlines to their constituent parts - plays nicely next to painter Ericks Johnson's use of a vaguely Popish image bank broken down into painterly abstraction. In place of Mondrian's cool grids or Ellsworth Kelly's disciplined color fields, there is Johnson's primal framework of zany, hallucinogenic color, glossy surface and ameboid form. Johnson's abstraction-flirting-with-representation anthropomorphic squiggles bend, warp, puddle and flow into objects suggesting puzzle pieces, game boards, '50s coffee tables, wads of bubble gum and the jutting madcapped elbows and knobby knees of cartoon characters on a softshoe jag. Perhaps the best illustration of Johnson's application of a can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it Pop iconography and formalist investigation is his phantasmagorical whatzit "Meso" (a large panel of glossy enamel painted on vinyl suggesting Philip Guston and Elizabeth Murray by way of Kenny Scharf and Twister) in which corpuscular forms and fleshy blobs play against a trouble-making Drano-blue background. Little mini-golf islands of organic shape and numbers further "Meso's" resemblance to some Martian party game.

Johnson's works are most enticing when they appear ready to break free from the rigors of amorphous goo-dom into representation, as in "Ecto" where a churning, mechanical form at the image's center looks like some Michelin Man superhero struggling for articulation. Across the wall, Johnson has allowed those representational impulses their day with a series of four large, approximately 4-by-8-foot woodcuts painted with enamel, featuring quirky takes on the still life with madcapped lemons and other strange fruit or a vase of posies all rendered in fun-house delirious, jitterbugging shapes. The images are instantaneously pleasing for their interplay of juicy fruit shades and animated angles, though by pushing through with representation, they lose some of the conceptual thrust of Johnson's deliciously mutating forms.

A friendly, approachable show, POP! factors out the smart-ass adolescent sneer of Scharf or Peter Saul, and the mildly condescending sting of Lichtenstein or Richard Hamilton. But that lack of bite and a shallow pool of ideas also make some of the work feel superficial. POP! presents three artists whose expression is perhaps a little tongue-tied by their use of a familiar Pop vocabulary, and who often serve to illustrate how quickly a subversive movement can metamorphose into canonized old guard.

POP! Goes the..., introducing the work of Ariana Huggett, Chris Niver and Ericks Johnson, runs through May 28 at City Gallery East in City Hall East, 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-817-6815. Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

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