At first glance, Amy Vogel is a landscape artist. Her large, mostly white canvases feature the barest outlines of a natural view, delicately painted in bright neon and pastels, cushioned in layers of thin, white wash. Half there, half not there, her work is colorful, wispy and very pretty — so pretty that you can almost miss what else is going on.
Step closer and you discover a delightful cast of small woodland creatures, acting in what would appropriately be called a shameful manner, if they had the capacity for shame, which they obviously do not.
A little girl in a miniskirt, tube-top and oversized rabbit helmet, a ropy monkey and a clan of delinquent bunnies all play out a series of BDSM games, partly fascinated, partly bored to death. Lightly drawn in ink and pencil, they’re almost invisible. It’s as if you stumbled upon a Technicolor Eden at the moment of its creation, just imagined by a tentative, groggy and tripped-out God, and it’s already been infested.
On one level, there’s nothing shocking or new about these works; Vogel’s basic visual elements are entirely familiar. She’s one of the many young artists devoted to the visual language of childhood playtime, to mixing the innocent with the violent and the erotic, to a bright and artificial palette, a rough, “sketchy” style of drawing … all these elements are so common they constitute either a slavish fad or a ready-made movement just barking for a manifesto.
But Vogel’s treatment of these elements is excellent. She uses this visual language with fluency and subtlety in ways that are expressive and seem intrinsic to the psychological and moral foundations of her work.
While the discomforting sexuality of Henry Darger’s sweet, bellicose little girls comes first to mind, these works balance the “untrained outsider” energy of Art Brut against Vogel’s self-proclaimed allegiance to the compositional style of the Romantic landscape painters.
Her influences are obvious, but the ambiguity is her own. Her world is always just emerging from a diaphanous mist, and even as it forms it disappears, quickly twisting and shocking into something different, pure decoration, pure retina-burn. When you look closely at what appears to be the outline of a huge pine, it rewards your scrutiny by devolving into a shaky scrawling line. It’s the same magical disorientation of Chuck Close’s big-square painted portraits — where there was image, you find pure paint.
The canvases are spotted occasionally with cosmic swirls and drips that look like the all-powerful imagination is still in the process of doing its odd work. Too much of this style would be overwhelming — too much the frenetic mania of a Dead show poster — but Vogel’s sensibility is in control, and her work remains restrained and cautious.
The gallery also features two infinitely breakable ceramic sculptures of the same characters lounging on large stumps in the middle of the floor. These are well-crafted, but out of sync with the undamaged natural world of her paintings.
The real heart of Vogel’s escapist fantasies is that the dream she casts isn’t that we become different, better creatures. These paintings wish for a world where our natural, violent selves become beautiful simply because they can do no real harm. She lets our basest curiosities get teased out and explored in a world of no consequences, no anguish, and cast in the shameless light of play.
Showing until Dec. 18 at Revolution Gallery, 23257 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-541-3444 or revolutn.com. Scott Topper is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org