Forest for the trees

Dan Attoe's "Landscapes and Water" at Fourteen30 Contemporary in Portland

I want to smile because Dan Attoe’s drawings in the front room of Fourteen30 Contemporary are unexpectedly cute, as if they were taken from a children’s book. On the other hand, the words that accompany many of these drawings are darker, sometimes untoward, and therefore more along the lines of what I have come to expect from Attoe. These little disjointed stories would not make a good bedtime story for one’s three-year-old. Even adults might chuckle nervously when they’re alone. But unless the setting is therapy or a 12-step meeting, the subject matter is often something most folks wouldn’t care to discuss, let alone share. A Potteresque bunny rabbit appears to be saying, “Stop making games that you’ll never be able to solve”; in another, a kitty clings to its branch, and instead of “Hang in there,” we get, “Struggles with alcohol.”

Each drawing has five or six of these images floating around a central vignette that typically reflects the title of the piece. The central image in “Children” is a dark forest with a light from above that shines so bright, it illuminates the figures in a clearing to the point that they appear to be ghosts. Crowning this scene is a miniature mantel of flowers on either side of a gingerbread house. Below both the house and the woods we find “There are little silvery whispers all around you. They all know something you don’t.” The aforementioned rabbit is at the top of the paper, other little drawings scattered about. A wind-blown dog’s head has the side-caption “Charlize Theron.” A Playboy bunny with matching ears and old-school stripper pasties has the word “Children” written next to it in smeared graphite. A mouse trapped in a glass jar is at the bottom of the piece. But what gets my attention more than any of the above is a snowman-shaped gourd with the caption, “I talk to kids.”

Not in the least comforting.

The temptation is to take this drawing, and the other, equally somber ones in this show, to the analyst’s couch, the assumption being that some greater sense might then be made out of the unsettling narrative that unfolds within each piece (and between the pieces). The rabbit appears to be drawing or making something, using a tree stump as a work surface. A rather ominous circular form hangs above and looks to be a cross between a cutaway of the rest of the tree and cross-hairs of a rifle scope. What associations can we make between this and the trapped mouse, or for that matter, the rather happy-looking dog? Is the dog supposed to be named after an attractive movie star or does the thought of her make the dog as joyful as it is when it sticks its head out of speeding car’s window?

No hare hole I recognize.

Without the effort at an associative process, which the words certainly help to develop, the images remain quirky snippets pitted against one another in a rather cute yet untoward discordance. Because of this, one doubly relies on the words to provide insight, even though we still may be caught unaware in this cautionary tale: The “silvery whispers…know something you don’t.”

Nevertheless, we must try, even if we fall short or fail in our endeavor. Combining the bunny at the stump, the topless woman with rabbit ears, and “Charlize Theron” seems to offer hope in a sexual component to this drawing. Even the mouse in the jar begins to make some tangential sense. But if we try to reintroduce children at this point, we get into trouble. The gourd becomes predatory. Darkest shades of Hansel and Gretel that I would rather discount, without asking myself why.

So, I return to the rabbit at work, not so much because of what it is doing as for the accompanying words: “Stop making games that you’ll never be able to solve.” The statement is confounding. Does one solve games? Puzzles and riddles are solvable, but one wins games. Still, I understand the sentence to mean, “Quit manipulating situations that only make more problems for yourself.” But isn’t Art made of this very thing? The superior knowledge contained within the “whispers” offers a partial solution in that most things in this world are hard to comprehend, and sometimes you have to let go and allow the mystery to stand.

Our Beliefs/Fourteen30 Contemporary

Our Beliefs/Fourteen30 Contemporary

It is here I allow myself to stop. I could go on to speculate about the other three drawings, but will instead suggest they echo a world-weary wisdom and a loss of innocence, all manifested with the assistance of the unanticipated or unknown. It may simply be the juxtaposition of the cute animal drawings positioned into awkward situations by way of the words (or, as in the drawing “Our Beliefs,” how a wind blows from inside a tent) that make these pieces discomfiting. Yet, there is also some relief from this darkness, for I can still detect the artist’s sense of humor, as if otherwise menacing trees are merely having a laugh at my expense, or at Attoe’s.

Which leads to another question: What is the successful dynamic between a viewer/audience member and the self-effacing artist/comic? It would seem to be about maintaining a certain distance where compassion and autobiography can safely play with each other.

As if that were something easy to pull off…

River Bank in Summer/Fourteen30 Contemporary

River Bank in Summer/Fourteen30 Contemporary

The tragicomedy of the front room is less apparent in Attoe’s four paintings in 1430’s back gallery. Still, I am conscious of looking for something askew, and I find it with the insistent “There are ghosts.” written onto “River Bank in Summer,” the smallest painting in this grouping. The phrase is directly pulled from the drawing “Our Beliefs.” The words are positioned near two people sitting high on the bank while others swim or dip a toe. Attoe has added to this scene a blurry, green underwater view, another world where our imaginations will survive longer than we can hold our breath. Is the presence of spirits in the water the reason the couple chooses to stay dry? Is superstition all that far from the neurosis of being overly cautious?

Two other paintings include water and swimmers. “Swimmers at a Waterfall” is painted from the perspective of someone very high on a hill or mountain. The waterfall is huge, and the swimmers are but specks in the water far below. “Swimming Pool at Night” shows a few people in a lit pool with a sky perhaps too full of stars for the full moon directly above them. In both of these paintings, because the swimmers seem less important than that which surrounds them, one gets the feeling Attoe would rather spend time with Nature, and like the swimmers, whether they know it or not, live as part of that larger fabric.

In this regard, Attoe is very much a Northwestern artist. Yet, like the best of that breed, there is something about his work that sets him apart, and maybe even places him in another, decidedly less pastoral camp, for there still is the matter of the dog and Ms. Theron.

Read more from Patrick Collier

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