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Originally published Friday, February 22, 2013 at 5:03 AM

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Prographica’s ‘Bleak Beauty’: fine art from the ‘unpromising’

In ‘Bleak Beauty: Artists Who Find Beauty in the Unpromising,’ Seattle art gallery Prographica showcases five gifted artists whose treatment of ordinary or abject subject matter takes startling and even seductive turns. Running through March 9, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibition review

‘Bleak Beauty: Artists Who Find Beauty in the Unpromising’

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays through March 9, Prographica/Fine Works on Paper, 3419 E. Denny Way, Seattle; free (206-322-3851 or www.prographica
drawings.com
).

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Seattle artist Norman Lundin, a University of Washington professor of art emeritus, has created something quite special with his Madrona gallery, Prographica/Fine Works on Paper.

The small group shows he curates there have thematic unity and vitality, yet also show his participating artists to their best advantage.

Prographica’s latest exhibit, “Bleak Beauty: Artists Who Find Beauty in the Unpromising,” is one of Lundin’s finest selections. It features five artists (three of them locals) who explore realities that may be off-putting or so much a part of our surroundings that they’re often neglected in art.

As Lundin notes, “A kind of beauty can be found in work with unpromising subject matter.”

The photographs of Dianne Kornberg have pride of place in the show. She lives in the San Juan Islands, but she’s hardly what you’d call a “San Juan Islands photographer.” Instead, her eerie imagery owes more to painter Georgia O’Keeffe or photographer Joel-Peter Witkin.

“Cartwheel 5” is a prime example. In this selenium-toned gelatin silver print, Kornberg arranges a loose assortment of calf bones in a dark crumbling cardboard box in a manner that suggests a jaunty gymnastic stunt. The result is simultaneously playful, complex and macabre.

“Jack in the Box 7” (a horse skull placed in a square container in such a way that its opening jawbones look almost spring-loaded) and “Equus caballus” (the pale, glistening fetus of a foal curled up in a circular vessel) achieve similar effects. With “Equus caballus,” Kornberg writes, she wanted to highlight “the exquisite way in which form evolves.” Once seen, you don’t forget it.

Seattle artist Iskra Johnson explores very different subject matter with equally striking effect. Her focus is on industrial structures: building cranes, scaffolding, utilitarian infrastructure. Her best digital collages, “The Blue Stair” and “Brooklyn with Baroque Sky,” manipulate photographic material to the point where it looks distinctly painterly.

Colors are willfully altered (the two building cranes in “Brooklyn with Baroque Sky” are mustard-yellow and marine-blue), and her backgrounds look as if they were applied to the paper with a scraper or a sander, rather than created through computer wizardry. The ultimate effect is that she sees everyday urban sights with a heightened artifice that makes them both more vivid and more alien.

Seattle artist Steve Costie’s graphite drawings are more minimalist — almost excessively so. His seven pieces on show in “Bleak Beauty” adhere to a strict formula. Each has a neatly delineated mid-level horizon, with dark foreground below, pale sky above and objects in the distance only half-readable (often they suggest pylons).

In “Atlantic 1940 #4,” however, he turns his formula to haunting effect, as he draws a ship about to sink into dark waters. Pale pencil streaks glancing outward from the vessel’s outline add a sort of doomed, agitated energy to it, almost as if it’s aware of its fate and protesting it.

The two out-of-towners, David Bailin (Arkansas) and Sandow Birk (Los Angeles), take different approaches to the “bleak.” Bailin’s charcoal drawings, with subtle watercolor embellishments, sometimes depict solitary male figures in suits and ties gauging problematic situations. “Seedling” makes the strongest impression, with its protagonist perched on a stump surrounded by stacks of logs, peering at a spindly, leafless, vulnerable sapling rising from one of the log piles.

Birk engages in more flamboyant apocalyptic spectacles, as two of his titles — “The Abandonment of SF MOMA at the Battle of San Francisco” and “A View of the Ruins of the City of Chicago” — suggest. But his graphite-on-drawing-film piece, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” is genuinely powerful. It depicts six soldiers in a Middle Eastern setting following one another into a dark grave. Acerbic draftsmanship and headlong composition combine here to deliver a punch to the gut.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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