Boldfigures is a vivid show of tall tales, myths and figurative inventions, conveying a sense of the human psyche's shape-shifting, polymorphous potential. The storylines don't have a beginning or an end, but tend to stray into the less structured byways of dream or waking fantasy.
Some of the paintings, drawings, prints and photographs by the exhibit's five Cleveland-based artists harken back to funk and other post-pop neo-expressionist styles of the '70s and '80s, mixing ironic social or political commentary into repetitive, optically seductive background patterns. Best known is Cleveland State University professor Ken Nevadomi, who achieved national recognition in the early '80s for a brushy vernacular style and surprising subject matter (one well-known painting of the period was "The Man Who Lived in a Refrigerator"). Here he presents four small pencil drawings exploring sexual currents running through the traditional artist-and-model motif. A larger, more finished charcoal and pastel work titled "Dog with Hamburger and Cow Persons" seems to peer down into the interior of a car where a happy dog, maybe a black Lab, clenches a burger in his teeth. Four faceless, half-dressed humans sporting token items of cowpoke apparel lounge around the dog, enclosed in the car as if in a mobile tondo. A number of green crocodiles hover outside, like cartoon demons in a modern morality play.
Barbara Konrad's mid-sized oil and acrylic on canvas paintings are improvisations, evolving brightly colored, spontaneous themes in a jungle of thickly interlaced black lines. More even than Nevadomi, Konrad's roots are in the Chicago Imagist painters of the '60s and 70s, especially the strong divisions and colors of Roger Brown, who she cites as an influence.
In a somewhat similar vein, Oberlin-based printmaker Claudio Orso-Giacone's finely printed woodcuts depict a freewheeling world of artists as they interact with politicians and other con men. They're up to no good in the sharply delineated panorama of "Café des Artistes," where figures from Cervantes and Picasso cavort by the light of the zeitgeist, shown as an oversized light bulb.
Despite a lot of talent on the wall, Boldfigures curator, exhibitor and Wall Eye Gallery co-op member Dante Rodriguez nearly steals this show, coming across as an exceptionally strong visionary painter and bringing the exhibit's quirky figuration up to date. Remembering animistic Mexican and Puerto Rican imagery, Rodriguez forges improbable combinations of human, animal and symbolic forms, like powers glimpsed at a Santería ritual. Also giving the exhibit an in-the-moment edge are photographs by Hannah Verbeuren. Her lustre prints documenting informal encounters on the margins of the music industry have a smoky, carnivalesque flair, like a voice-over by Tom Waits.
Neither over-curated nor half-baked, Boldfigures uses Cleveland's (largely unheralded) status as an outlying bastion of late modern figural manners, balanced with more recent trends. Even in our Photoshop-worn time, off-the-radar, essentially non-academic imagery can be both refreshing and pictorially profound.