By HEIDI MARSTON AISHMAN
Have you ever seen something you thought was cool and then wondered why everyone else didn’t think the same thing? Going to art openings is often like that for me. It's always subjective and always personal: people see, experience and enjoy different things and that is part of what makes it exciting. The exhibition of "Shaun El C. Leonardo + Mark Schoening" at Rhys Gallery is one of those moments where I am thinking, “this is awesome and what’s more awesome is that other people see the value in looking at this too”.
I have always been a bit of a comic book, “graphic novel” fan and the work of both of these artists reference the best aspects of that type of artwork. Comics have always been able to show us new perspectives on life and relationships through fiction. The exciting part of reading comic books has always been that I never knew what was going to happen next and how that would be illustrated. The outcome wasn’t always what I wanted but it was never predictable.
Mark Schoening’s work was like having the opportunity to see what is happening in contemporary abstraction while it was being created. He has 4 square paintings that are mostly white with amorphous black and grey toned images emerging form the center. Schoening’s paintings reminded me of how the complex interiors of man and machine are drawn in contemporary graphic novels. They are hard to describe which is part of what makes them exciting. It is like something is growing from some 3rd dimension inside the canvas. If one were to take a hammer to the surface (which I am not saying you should) I bet the canvas would open up into something like the Phantom Zone from Superman or another plane of existence like in a Vertigo comic. On the wall opposite these paintings is a grid of approximately 30 small pieces where the same imagery completely covers the surface and is coated with plastic resin. When I asked Mark Schoening about the use of the glassy surface he said it was meant to act like a lens as if you were looking into the pieces. From seeing Schoening's earlier work I came to the opening with an idea of what I was going to see and I was surprised. It was like the next chapter in his work where we finally get to see what is inside the bigger paintings from the last time we saw his work. Like the moment when the Terminator gets half his face blown off and you see all the intricate circuits that make up what’s below the surface.
In contrast to Scheoning’s work, Shaun El C. Leonardo’s work is visually all about the exterior. His large-scale hyper masculine figures referencing comic book heroes and villains inhabit the larger space within Rhys Gallery like a sci-fi invasion. The pieces are cut out of wood, which emphasizes the indestructible presence that these types of figures have within pop culture. I felt a little bit like I finally knew what people mean when they say “be careful what you wish for…” because as a kid anyone who reads comics wishes at some point that the characters would come alive and you could fight along side them. Here within the space that Leonardo created I realize just how much I like these types of characters when they are in their 2 dimensional, controllable, comic book form. Leonardo has taken them out made them larger than life and forced me to look at them in another way.
Both of the artists were excited to talk about their work. In a way it was kind of what I imagine it would be like meeting Stan Lee. Stan Lee’s work has inspired and affected millions of people but somehow, even with all of the hype, it seems so personal to him. Schoening was so excited about his work, so much so that it didn’t really matter that I was there, or that I was interested, HE was interested in his own work and just enjoyed sharing it with anyone who came to see it. Leonardo was more than happy to talk about his work, what it meant to him, why he chose to make them free formed wood sculptures, and how much he like them in the space at Rhys. In many ways it was more of an experience of being around artists who were not looking for validation, they were just making something cool and sharing it with whomever was interested.
This exhibit is an experience. It was more than just seeing the artwork, it was experiencing the people who created the work and seeing their excitement about it. While I would suggest going to see the show hands down, those who did not attend the opening really missed out on the chance to get the experience of the kind of community that Rhys Gallery is building. This was one of those moments where I thought to myself, “hey I guess I am not the only one who thinks that this stuff is more than just cool, it’s inspiring.”
"Shaun El C. Leonardo + Mark Schoening" is on view March 15 - April 26, 2007 at Rhys Gallery.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Rhys Gallery.