Strange Wilderness

The opening reception for "Strange Wilderness," an exhibit currently up at Sweeney Todd's Salon in uptown, was sparsely attended in the few hours it was open, with a large tray of cookies and and a barely touched spread of cheese and crackers on a center table left afterward--a rarity at public events. The term "gem in the ruff" seems to have been invented for shows like this. Tucked away in an obscure spot beneath the bustling nightlife on Lyndale, it probably wasn't an event one would expect people to pile into. But had they known about it, they all would have walked away remembering the artist's name.

Chris Price works in a partnership with the Altered Esthetics Solo Exhibition Program. Altered Esthetics itself is a nonprofit gallery run by the artists who use it. This program in particular gives those artists a chance to work on their art careers by sharing their work with communities, building a portfolio and a name for themselves, and getting consultation from the Program Director. Sweeney Todd's works in partnership with the program, which is why "Strange Wilderness" was held in the barbershop.

Mr. Price's artwork was full of fantastical scenes and otherworldly characters soothing to the imagination. The way a Dr. Seuss book says so much with an outwardly simple story, each of Price's paintings seemed to observe strange realities of the world from an innocent child's perspective with straightforward images (though elaborately rendered). Price put the
intersection of human civilization and the wild that existed before it into a context of emotions and hypnotizing monument-like representations of that relationship.

Green Flash Boon Chris Price: Green Flash Boon

Most of the pieces came alive after an extended viewing. Like a plot unraveling, new details and interpretations emerged with every passing moment. One piece that stuck out, Green Flash Boon, which was made using oil on canvas, whispered at the viewer when they set eyes on it and then, after a few minutes, began to shout. The scene depicted was of an ocean late at night, lit only by the bright shadows of two demons hovering eerily above the water, on either side of a seemingly abandoned ship--abandoned, that is, except for a few remaining skeletons apprehensively climbing above the surface. A few understandings were possible here. The most basic impression was a distillation of a child's nightmare. This is the kind of sight one dreams up of the world unknown when they are still young enough to do so--like the famous question of, "If no one is around when the tree falls in the forest, does it really fall?" young minds almost expect there to be events beyond our scope happening at all times. Putting aside this notion, which is charming though a bit shallow, layers of meaning burst from the association of the looming monster-like figures and the unimposing skeleton on his forsaken ship.

It's true that the creatures looked like demons, but after this first impression it became clear that one resembled the sun and the other, the moon. The sun emitted a red glow on the sea below it, and moon did the same in blue, and furthermore, was in the shape of a crescent. Why, then, were both so intimidating? A fresh significance materialized: the forces of nature, somewhat like the Hindi Gods, were personified with their respective attitudes. If the skeleton could be said to represent humankind, then the dialogue between man and nature was self-explanatory. As the orange and yellow aura of light just narrowly surrounding the scene caved in, it appeared that Mother Nature was attempting to drown out any semblance of human life--as if nature were waging war on civilization. After this judgment, it was hard to go back to the more naive "mythical moment" perception of the piece. As the resentful moon and the angry sun stared down the manmade ship and its pitiful survivor, the veil of night pressing in at all corners, *Green Flash Boon *expressed a state of death amid life. Though the message was rather dark, it was powerful nonetheless.

Evolution Fishing Chris Price: Evolution Fishing

Although varying in degrees of creepiness, most of the paintings following this one could be said to follow suit. Different pieces of "the natural world"--mostly animals--were at conflict with the intrusion of manmade culture. In fact, one might feel guilty looking at all the pieces, understanding their message and also the fact that we need to be placed in a manmade art gallery in order to contemplate the use of resources, human evolution's effect on the earth, and more.

For example, a pang of pity came when looking at a piece called Evolution Fishing (Oil on canvas, 2010) in which a chimpanzee sat alone on a towering island, looking glum. The look of boredom on his face could be traced to the unfulfilling activity in which he engaged--dangling a fishing pole with a toy truck hanging from it in the water. Perhaps the removed island embodied the distance at which humans place themselves from nature (and now, apparently, the chimps as well). But it also reflected the typical human treatment of animals; the chimp seeming to be on display and forced to deal with its life in the framework of human structure, it looked unamused at best.

And with the carrying theme of man vs. wild still in place, a new idea consisted throughout many of the works in the room. All surrounding one corner were four pieces that, very much like*Evolution Fishing,* contained traces of that disturbing repression of animals that could be described in terms of a circus scene. At the circus, everything is about weird manipulation for shock-value entertainment. That sickly feeling that some may feel when contemplating a confusing trip to the circus was very evident in Mr. Price's *Commencement* (Oil on canvas, 2011), which showed an elephant passing under an interesting multi-featured waterfall. The elephant looked to be drenched in mud, not to mention at least slightly depressed (do all elephants look this sad?) We can't really blame him as he was imprisoned by a human presence--a presence that showed itself in the waterfall led to by manmade steps. In fact, with a second glance the waterfall looked not so much like a natural phenomenon as it did a water-themed ride at an amusement park. It took a while to notice a snake perched on the periphery of the painting, curved along the river that flowed beyond the elephant's path. The viewer walked away with a lot of jumbled thoughts, but it's hard to imagine the one that spoke loudest wasn't something akin to "That poor guy."

The end of the walk around the room brought visitors to a written description of the artist's purpose, done by Mr. Price himself. It was interesting to find that all those suspicions about the artwork's meaning were onto something; Price explained that much of it explored the question of the human presence surviving the wilderness (I'd like to suggest that the flip-side of that was very present as well). Mr. Price stood by many of the visitors, laughing often and looking full of life and inspiration, the inspiration most likely responsible for creating this truly fascinating collection of work. Keep an eye out for Price in the arts scene--if you take a chance and see a show, you won't be sorry.

-Maddy Hughes

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Strange Wilderness
On View: Saturday, April 16, 2011 through Saturday, May 21, 2011
Where: Sweeney Todd's Salon
Address: 2429 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis 55408

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