The first glance at the work of Thad Kellstadt and Michael Koehler, the two artists concurrently up at Moxie DaDA, might not demonstrate much creative kinship between them. Koehler's contribution to the exhibition Bogus Journey takes the form of primarily faded and meticulously detailed paintings on wood, delicate in shape and hue; Kellstadt offers works larger both in physical scale and literal content, crude lines realized through bright and primary palettes, brash and aggressive.
Kellstadt and Koehler's affinity doesn't lie in any shared visual technique, but it is undeniable in their roles as storytellers. Both artists use the canvas (or tree branches, or skateboard decks) to establish a narrative ripe with invention and clarity, yet imbued with the mystery required to lure the viewer into their distinct environs. They say enough to communicate a sense of vitality and urgency, yet leave enough unsaid to engage the viewer's own imagination, elevating the role from observer to participant.
Kellstadt creates his universe, or the small corner of it that we see here, with vibrant flat pigment and rough harsh lines. Elements are mutual from one work to the next, color is echoed within all of the dozen or so pieces. But the most striking cohesion throughout the collection is the feeling a viewer gets of having just missed the pivotal moment, that an incident of great import and significance has occurred a moment before or just out of frame.
In a number of these paintings, tufts of grassy weeds appear over the edges of a plain brown picket fence, small spikes of green poking into the sky. In one, a boombox rests in a corner. In another, an orange plastic milk crate is turned on its side, drops of blood spattering one of the slats. In a third, three-dimensional piece, a figure stands upon the milk crate peering over to the other side. Something is very clearly going on here, but Kellstadt isn't giving it all away; it's up to us to make sense of it. A silhouette in the back seat is the only occupant of a broken-down van spewing oily black smoke, a sketchily tattooed arm hoists a pistol, scratchy graffiti is replicated by various figures seen only from behind. The populace principally keep their backs to us -- they're not letting us in on anything, either. The puzzle is irresistible. The result of this withholding is to pique our interest and desire to play detective further. We're not shut off by the secrecy but turned on and drawn in by it.
The inhabitants of Koehler's land, by contrast, face us directly. They present themselves head on. They look us, not quite in the eye, but very close to it, and don't evade our gaze. What's revealed is decidedly off-kilter and never fully human, although maybe fighting to be so. This world is rife with amputees, robots, bears, birds, trees and the interwoven composites of all of the above. Wings flap round boxy metal heads, limbs of trees and men grow and stretch and bleed, and man, nature and machine alternately breed and brawl. Man-made heads sprout branches and organic ones leak cables; automatons dream kindling that rises to drumming bears. These works on wood hold color faded and aged, a murkiness not washed out by time itself, but time condensed by repetition, and the struggle to cut through the murkiness and emerge in clarity.
Either of these two small collections would intrigue standing alone. Set together, the contrasting and the common in these two artists' works make them an ideal pairing.
Bogus Journey continues through Sat., July 21. (Closing reception noon-10:30 p.m. Fri., July 20.) moxie DaDA, 1416 Arch St., North Side. 412-682-0348
- Work by Michael Koehler.