There are just four paintings in “Original Behavior” but they’re enough to make for an entertaining, provocative Sheldon Museum of Art exhibition.
Large and vividly colored, the four paintings that date from 1976 to last year are cartoon-like, seemingly drawing on comics and caricature to tell some kind of story.
Those narratives can be obvious or hard to uncover. But they are embedded in the work that is really rooted in the art movements of the '30s through the '60s, the imagery sometimes turning standard expectations on their head.
That’s the point of the show, according to the curatorial statement of University of Nebraska-Lincoln art professor Aaron Holz and Wally Mason, Sheldon’s director and chief curator.
“Merging ideas central to Surrealism and Pop Art, these grand-scale works offer an affront to good taste, political correctness, and academic standards,” they write. “They breakdown the preconceptions of serious art that are easy to ignore yet hard to forget. The works are at once authoritative and powerful though they often employ an attenuated caricature of mundane objects.”
The best example of the narrative nature of the paintings — albeit one that takes a little looking to suss out — is Peter Saul’s “Abstract Expressionist Still Life,” a 2016 acrylic that is Sheldon’s most recent painting acquisition.
Stylistically, “Abstract Expressionist Still Life” has nothing in common with any kind of abstraction, nor are there any clear characters seen on the canvas. But a little background brings out the story in Saul’s surrealistic, flowing work.
At the left is a piece of cheese sitting on a chair, representing Paris, the center of the art world pre-World War II. At the right is a crashed car, the vehicle driven by a drunk Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist master who, contrary to the soft landing seen in the painting, died in the wreck in 1956.
In between, mapping the move of the art world center to New York, is a glorious mess of cherry and chocolate sauces, coffee and wine and the very American hot dog — Saul is, at his core, a Pop Artist and, like Claes Oldenburg, gleefully incorporates food into his work.
The other recent Sheldon acquisition in the show is “The Other Washingtons,” a 1987 oil on canvas by the late Robert Colescott, one of the most important, influential African-American artists of the late 20th century.
Fitting into the show’s cartoon-like aesthetic, “The Other Washingtons” is filled with balloon-like depictions of Denzel Washington, a basketball player who could be Dwayne "Pearl" Washington and singer Dinah Washington along with dozens of others above and around a profile view of George Washington — making visual the fact that 80 percent of Americans named Washington are black.
That makes it satiric and fun. But it’s also a powerful enough statement that it was exhibited in Sheldon’s provocative 2015 exhibition of work by and about African-Americans, “Black Fire: A Constant State of Revolution.”
In contrast to the newer pieces, Philip Guston’s “Pit II” has been in Sheldon’s collection for decades.
The 1976 oil painting, in which red and black are muted and a Pepto Bismol pink and gray provide the background, depicts legs and feet sticking out of a pit, with a ladder descending below the surface in the background.
While again, cartoon-like, it’s far from funny. It is a reflection by Guston, who changed his name from Goldstein, on the Holocaust, a hellish vision of the ovens at the extermination camps in which thousands of Jews were killed by Nazis in World War II.
The fourth painting, Carroll Dunham’s “Another Island" (1998-99) is on loan for the exhibition from collectors Robert and Karen Duncan. A perfect fit for the show, it’s a solid example of Dunham’s work.
His cartoon-like figures are carefully contained within the acrylic painting’s surface and the artist clearly is concerned with some formal issues, working in heavily-outlined, flat, hard-edged color.
But his penis-nosed character, sometimes called Killer, who appears to be popping out of, perhaps, a submarine hatch appears to be in conflict with a brown-haired, big-lipped, distorted body figure, creating a narrative of sorts. Good luck figuring out exactly what it is.
Not that the narrative is all that important. Even without a good story, the paintings and show are eye-popping good fun.