The three emerging artists featured in Self-Discovery at Naomi Silva Gallery have one strike against them, with that vague, New-Agey title to overcome. Real artists, after all, don't ask you to care, they compel you to, based on the evidence of their work.
The term "self-discovery," while certainly applicable to the art-making process, also turns out to be something of a misnomer in Self-Discovery. All three artists seem to be dealing with material more about the larger, outside world than engaging in the kind of "mirror, mirror on the wall" introspection that the show promises. Thank God.
Alexi Torres, for instance, is a Cuban-born artist whose work deals with nationhood and exploration, specifically the Spanish conquest of the New World. Torres' visual lexicon is so elemental, most of it could function as tattoo art and often threatens to lapse into kitsch. The artist is drawn to images of lions, bald eagles, Jesus, Neptune and windjammers. The images are generally isolated from any background detail beyond surfaces of distressed, cracked textures resembling aged plaster or marble, which convey a sense of history. Images of Christ superimposed on the grid of a compass in "Discover II" and "Discover III" suggest some monumental, spiritually justified sense of progress underpinning explorers' visions of their journey. The roaring stone beast in "Lion's Rage," ornamented with the word "America" carved into stone behind it, suggests some native tendency toward bellicosity.
Zach Smith's pared-down backgrounds and elemental painting style bears many similarities to Torres' work, and can suggest travel, too. But instead of introspective journeys, Smith's ambles address a visual culture founded on Life magazine-style media images of familiar people: dancing jazz-age honeys or a turn-of-the-century immigrant mother swaddled in scarf and long coat, holding her anxious child by the hand. The images seem like something we may have seen before, but with enough information withheld to give the paintings a sense of mystery.
The self-taught artist's promising but underdeveloped work suggests a union of Magritte and The Invisible Man. In Smith's depopulated portraits, clothes, accessories, furniture and minimal background are present, but the artist has left people out of the equation. Playing upon our compulsion to infer the whole from the parts, Smith gives us just enough visual information to pique our interest. With details of sex and race left out, many may find themselves conjuring elaborate mental images and narratives to fill in Smith's blanks.
Both Torres and Smith are drawn to succinct, unembellished images, but Self-Discovery's third artist, William Woolfolk, wins hands down for having the most pared-down imagery.
Woolfolk is the lone abstract artist sandwiched between two painters whose imagery has the simplified impact of signage. If Smith and Torres examine macro issues of history, nation and representation, Woolfolk tends toward the more basic and micro. His compelling acrylic "Birth" paintings are like looking into the eye of a biological storm. Considering the paintings' red orbs and black tadpole forms, viewers may be excused for running with their most literal associations as minds reflect on junior-high health classes, and the kind of microscopic "Dating Game" played out on the Discovery Channel.
When Woolfolk moves away from these cosmic cataclysms into the cool blues of his "Blue Vibe" work, it's easy to miss the chaos, heat and movement of the "Birth" works, where the intensity of the colors tends to intensify the action.
With each artist's work in Self-Discovery, there are unfocused ideas and a lack of consistency, which one accepts and excuses with emerging artists. It may all be part of the process of self-discovery that the show's title alludes to. But before society's interest is sufficiently captivated, there is work to be done.