Landscapes, and the terrain of the body

by Matthew Kangas
(from The Seattle Times Oct 8, 2004)

Two young women artists exhibiting in Seattle this month suggest a hopeful direction for contemporary art: dismantling the figure and landscape through abstraction. Samantha Scherer's solo debut at SOIL Gallery & Artist Cooperative is an extremely promising occasion. Victoria Haven's impressive installation at Howard House is her fourth Seattle show since 1991. Both artists take apart their subjects, respectively the human figure and the mountain landscape, and, by reprocessing, re-distributing and reconstituting them, make us see the world through new eyes. This is exactly what contemporary art should do.

Haven's collection of five wall installations and nine framed works on paper is the perfect antidote to all the hot lava of the Mount St. Helens eruption. In Haven's hands, the generic mountain of Pacific Northwest lore is literally cut down to size, cooled off and put back together again. Now 40, Haven has perfected the art of taking ordinary office supplies and kitchen-shelf paper and turning them into extraordinary statements, some of which have received recognition in Portland, New York, Melbourne and London. Next week in a ceremony at the Seattle Art Museum, Haven will be awarded the 2004 Betty Bowen Memorial Award accompanied by a check for $11,000.

Given the entire space at the new Howard House location, Haven fills it admirably with a confidence and imagination that startles the viewer, considering how pervasive the mountain-peak image is. Over and over, the University of Washington graduate (who also attended graduate school at the University of London) re-thinks our deepest notions of what a landscape should look like.

Rather than a solid mass, Haven perforates the earth using either pieces of clear plastic, cut-up faux woodgrain Con-Tact paper, or colored adhesive tape. In works like "Wonderland," "Twin Peaks," and "Range #1," the viewer looks through the mountain to a structured, organic basis that is wholly imaginary yet looks strangely authoritative, like a geology survey map.

While Haven is fulfilling her early promise in ways that her teachers would be proud of, Scherer is on the verge of finding her true voice. Not surprising for an artist of her generation, the 33-year-old Kansas City Art Institute graduate (who attended grad school at the UW) has fastened upon our society's cult of celebrity to critique and satirize.

Twenty-eight entertainment and political figures have been stripped to their basics and lovingly painted by Scherer. She's brilliantly reduced such figures as actors Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Mel Gibson, Halle Berry and Charlize Theron to single body parts: lips, eyes, ears, mouths, teeth and, in the case of Pitt, one nipple.

The results are hilarious and timely. Visitors may want to play a guessing game without looking at the labels. Who can recognize Brad Pitt's nipple? Or Benicio Del Toro's eyes? Or Angelina Jolie's lips?

Executed with delicate ink and watercolor, Scherer's small 14-by-ten-inch paintings remove the celebrities from their morass of media overkill and slowly dissect some of their most prominent features. With uncanny accuracy, Scherer also shows signs of a nascent political caricaturist. Only, with her skills, all she has to do is focus on John Ashcroft's eyes (scary), or those of George W. Bush (weary) or John Kerry (very blue) to capture the essence of identity extracted from the visual chaos normally surrounding them.

With such an auspicious debut, Scherer deserves better lighting. Now that SOIL has moved to Pioneer Square, installation standards are higher than in their former Capitol Hill neighborhood. Double the number of lighting fixtures, expand the gallery hours, and SOIL could become a significant venue for younger talent. As it stands, Samantha Scherer, at least, is off to a great start.