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Monday, July 23, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Art review
Davidson Galleries: Artists play mind games using sharp skills

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

There's a sweet spot in the visual arts where tour-de-force technique is perfectly matched with idiosyncratic imagination.

Two new shows at Davidson Galleries, Briony Morrow-Cribbs' "Scientia Carnalis" and Julia A. Eastberg's "Looking for Saints: Surrealist Watercolors," hit that spot repeatedly and delectably.

Morrow-Cribbs is a former Whidbey Islander now living in Vermont whose hand-tinted etchings blend scientific-illustration precision with some gleefully macabre twists. She seems especially fond of hybrid creatures.

In "Iguanidae," two lizards with human skulls for heads nuzzle each other affectionately. The line between lizardy slitheriness and fond human connection is strangely seamless. In "Avialae cranium — Female," a corvidlike critter is likewise topped by a human skull and bows forward in a hail-fellow-well-met stance. Far from being something out of nightmares, she seems positively kindly and affable.

Larger etchings depict animal couples either in coitus or in battle, or some prickly combination of the two. In each case, they float against a spotted gray-and-white backdrop.

"Vulpas zerda" shows two fennec foxes (native to North Africa) in action. The face of the dominating figure is oddly distorted, with one eye squinting, mouth hanging open and head torqued to the left. "Aldabrachelys gigantean" observes the gentler mating ritual of two Aldabra giant tortoises (native to the Seychelles), while the lizards in "Anolis carolinensis" appear similarly engaged ... until you notice that the partner on top (presumably the male) is chowing down on a sizable fold of his partner's back flesh.

As for the multilimbed subaquatic pair in "Octopus vulgaris," there's no telling if they're entangled for procreative purposes or for a duel to the death.

"Scientia Carnalis" also includes some curious sculptures enclosed under bell jars in cabinet-of-curiosities fashion. In these "osteology studies," Morrow-Cribbs uses bones or skeletons as her starting point, adorning them with etched-upon Sekishu (Japanese handmade paper). Wire-mounted artfully on wood bases, they're creepily animated.

"Osteology Study I — Urocyon cinereoargenteus," a sharp-toothed fox skeleton, is adorned with paper "fur." "Osteology Study III — Sylvilagus dicei," at first glance, looks like a parrot skeleton. Why else would it have something resembling wings? But it's actually Dice's Cottontail, found at high elevations in Costa Rica and Panama. And those "wings," on closer examination, appear to be more of a fanciful opera cape.

Julia A. Eastberg, born in Index, spent many years in Hawaii and now lives in Port Townsend. Like Morrow-Cribbs, she has a zest for playing mind games with the viewer. And in "Looking for Saints," she shows remarkable finesse with watercolors, gouache and pencil as she spins illusions within illusions.

Images appear and reappear or are ghosted out and inverted, almost like musical motifs, as she creates a richly ornate visual world. Every piece in the show demands a second — and sometimes a third or fourth look — before you can catch everything going on in it.

"Memory of Rembrandt," "Distant Secrets," "The Midnight Swim" and "Reflections on Her Bed of Roses" all feature the same model: an auburn-haired damsel with a 1940s hairdo whom Eastberg takes pleasure in immersing in spectacularly elaborate backdrops.

"The Midnight Swim" may be the richest example. In it, Eastberg's model — not swimming in any sense of the word — calmly sheds stylized tears that a disembodied hand catches in a proffered glass vial. Her underwater world is populated by some decidedly nonaquatic species (what's a rooster doing down there?), along with the fish, crustaceans and amphibians you might expect. The sense of trespassing on someone else's dream reality is palpable.

Another female model with more of a 1920s look — she's coyly glancing over her shoulder — appears in "The Pulse," "The Adjustments" and "This Is Not My Life." "The Pulse" has a semi-mystical vibe, as the woman and her mirror image, covered in floral tattoos, press their hands into a single golden-red undersea aura, shining in a realm populated by insects and fish. "This Is Not My Life" features more disembodied hands — one in color, one in black-and-white — busying themselves by surrounding the central figure with some Jackson Pollock-worthy abstract squiggles.

In a couple of pieces, Eastberg's trompe l'oeil turns have crueller edges, with the artwork seemingly in conflict with itself. In "Executing the Drawing #2 in Red," a red-gloved hand wields a matte knife that's slicing right across the palm of a black-and-white hand. In "The Process of Elimination," the slice-and-dice work is even more elaborate. Both show superb drawing technique.

Davidson Galleries is also hosting a tourist-aimed show, "Seattle Outside," a group exhibit of local outdoor "shots" in a variety of media. Most of it is pretty light fare, but the aerial city views in Douglas Cooper's charcoal drawings and Michael Dal Cerro's woodcuts have some vertigo-inducing energy to them.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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