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Volume 134, Issue 6


girl art boy art

Beetle Battle

Beetle Battle (1999, oil on canvas), a post-human world with Horning's brawny muse, the Dung Beetle.
If City Arts Gallery Curator Jim Torlakson had intentionally set out to represent feminine and masculine aesthetics in American art, he could not do better than to set the juvenile, riot grrly work of Nancy Mizuno Elliott alongside the insects and crustaceans of Robert Horning.

The Gallery's exhibition Bad Brains and Bad Beetles brings together two generations and two schools of art: the elderly Horning's meticulous, formal, modern realist paintings of dung beetles, and the 30-something Mizuno Elliott's feminist, subversive, Jelly Roll-pen-on-black-chalkboard drawings.

"Girl artists revel in the femmy side, push it in people's faces," says Eliott, a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor's in Fine Arts from UC Berkeley and a master's from the University of Georgia, Athens.

Her works represent the new generation of the so-called femme aesthetic, which subversively uses homey, women-identified, craft store materials: yarn, pipe cleaners, and paint-by-numbers boards.

By using traditionally female media, Mizuno Elliott creates a visual contradiction. The material's cozy, soothing associations clash with her bold political messages. It subverts the conventional wisdom that craft or "minor" decorative arts cannot express deep content.

Judy Chicago's infamous "The Dinner Party," and the postmodern textile art of Lia Cook operate from the same motives.

"My art is personal, irreverent," says Elliott, who teaches at Santa Clara Mission College and curates the Richmond Craft Center. "I take a sweet material and make it dark."

She calls her half of the exhibit, "Bad Brains," named after a punk rock band, "stripped-down, low-tech, and punky."

"In the past punk had more bite to it," she says. "Now it's very non-threatening, marketed rebellion. It's been coopted to sell an image. Back then my art was more serious, anti-Reagan stuff. I was a trauma queen. Today it's tongue-in-cheek. Now I see the humor and how over-the-top I was."

Mizuno Elliott has exhibited at Cleveland's Dead Horse Gallery and at this year's local, all-woman Ladyfest, along with Dame Darcy's goth dolls.

Ink on slate

Elliot's ink on slate work, inspired by influential yet underrated hardcore punk/reggae/collision-rock group, Bad Brains.
Mizuno Elliott calls Horning and herself "Road Scholars" for the hours they spend commuting as part-time teachers.

Robert Horning wants his audience to see dung beetles as educational conservationist role models.

"They reverse our values," says Horning, who studied at Manhattan's Art Students League in the early '60s. "We put taking out the garbage on the bottom of the scale, but it's a heroic occupation. We have an image of upward mobility. But this is an environmental era. You can't throw things away anymore."

Horning explains that because African dung beetles and their larvae only feed on dung, Australians have imported them to clean up cattle droppings. Once the dung is gone the beetles die off.

One of Horning's paintingsdepicts toy earthmovers excavating tiny sculptures of nude female torsos and a winged pig.

"It's intentionally ambiguous," he says. "I looked for something in the machine world that had the same rugged, sturdy, no-nonsense, hard-working characteristics and qualities of the beetle -- something in the machine world corresponding to the natural, organic world."

High Rise

High Rise (1999, oil on canvas) Horning's vision of creatures adapted to what we leave behind.
Horning has switched materials over the years, from synthetic heat-set oil (which can be reworked indefinitely, until it is heated to 250 degrees) to his current use of pastel on velour felt, the texture of which he compares to a shag rug.

"The paint sinks between the hairs," he says. "It feels good to put it on, a nice pleasant feel."

Some of Horning's works depict conflict between man and the natural world. "Overcontrol" features a vice pinching the trunk of a tiny tree. In "Controlling Nature," a giant crab lies on its back, tied down like Gulliver pinned to the earth by Lilliputians.

In other works, Horning anthropomorphizes man-made objects. A box of dental instruments suggest pincer-like appendages. The legs of a porcelain candy dish resemble spider's legs. A bar of oatmeal soap fuses the natural and the man-made.

The shapes and compositions of his recent pastel works recall Cezanne; the colors, Gauguin.

Horning's teaching serves his art. "When I practice demonstration drawing, I come up with ideas about painting," the Pleasantville, New York native says.

"The state of mind I cultivate when I explain drawing makes me reconsider things I might have put on the shelf. If students don't understand something, I find new ways to work it out through visual thinking, just like doing push-ups keeps the athlete in shape."

Beginning artists in Horning's Solano Community College nude figure drawing class in Fairfield are sometimes bewildered to discover that this involves drawing nude people.

"It's a new thing for some students to draw a nude, so I try to make it positive and cozy, not depersonalizing for the model," says Horning, who holds a master's in printmaking from San Francisco State University. "I introduce the model to the class. They clap, express appreciation, and chat with the model during breaks."

Professional models usually drive to the isolated East Bay town from the city. Conversely, Mizuno Elliott calls City College students art-savvy. "They're not easily shocked," she says. "They know who Cindy Sherman is."

Bad Brains and Bad Beetles shows Nov. 20-Dec. 17 at the City Arts Gallery, with an artist's reception Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. and lecture by Horning at 6:30 p.m.