See Creatures With Kraken and Kraten at the Box Gallery

See Creatures
Aaron Kraten’s stylish sirens don’t leave much of an impression, but Keith Noordzy’s charming sea monsters will follow you home, Sid & Marty Krofft-style

In the nifty, white-walled dimensions of the Box gallery—which serves double duty as boutique hair salon Splitends—you’re never more than a few inches from mixed-media artist Aaron Kraten’s smears of color. The twisty-twirly, finger-painted teal, green, brown and blue and the upraised surfaces of the work all beg to be stroked or, at the very least, gone over with a magnifying glass to catch all the details. Containing an overwhelming amount of visual information, his fever dream of pensive emo girls (and a few boys), tumor-like electronic equipment, buttons scavenged off remote controls, newsprint, black-and-white photos, and random digits is an Ikea instruction sheet run amok, all images and lines and numbers. While an understanding of graffiti and skateboard cultures will help sort out his influences, you have to wade through the work on your own.

But here’s the problem: Kraten’s art doesn’t really exist outside itself. It sits on the “canvas”—be it wood blocks, skateboard decks or storage trunks—and it doesn’t go anywhere. Aside from the Beatles lyrics, Naked Lunch references or Arthur Koestler titles, his art is entirely self-contained. It isn’t a jumping-off point to grander ideas or other imagery as you ponder it or view other art. It’s autotelic, a means unto itself. You walk away. It doesn’t follow.

His women are another issue. Spindle-waisted; claw-handed; fond of stripes, tattoos and tights; their faces blank, with only the occasional closed eye or pursed lips to suggest features, Kraten’s iconic leggy lasses are there to be looked at but not communicated with. The male viewer may look at them to his heart’s content without fear they’ll catch his eye or speak to him. That full Angelina Jolie mouth isn’t for talking.

Objectification? Maybe, but I suspect it’s like any fetish: something so abstract and wrapped up in personal baggage it simply can’t transcend the world of the creator’s own mind. That’s fine when you’re masturbating—and I say that without snark—but not so great if your goal is communication.

Happily, Johnny Sampson, the curator for “Kraken and Kraten With Aaron Kraten and Keith Noordzy,” loves dichotomy—his next show will be split between images of heaven and hell—so it’s a pleasant surprise after Kraten’s urban cool to find Noordzy’s work, which couldn’t be more different. His playful pen-and-ink drawings of sea life playing dress up and cavorting underwater are humorous and unique, each moment telling its own little story.

Historically, krakens were giant, squid-like sea monsters strong enough to drown whales. They’d sweep in under a ship, crush it with their enormous tentacles, and then chew on the unfortunate sailors with their large, chicken-like beaks. (Think Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.) Noordzy’s apostrophe-like krakens grin at the viewer with a mouthful of sharp teeth, but they have more in common with mischievous children than anything lethal.

For example, the picture Kraken and Whale: BFF has the mythological enemy and a Moby Dick stand-in smiling in friendship, Kraken’s tentacle resting over Whale’s “shoulder.” In Kraken and Whale at Play, the black monster and gray whale are at opposite sides, a yin-yang swimming in the blue. A triptych on one wall—Sleepy Squid Finds New Friend, Sleepy Squid and Sleeping Friend and Sleepy Squid Is Happy Squid—in which a wall-eyed purple squid discovers a lost brown kitten, begs the question, “How is that cat breathing underwater?” But it is so sweet in its sentimental simplicity it charmed this cynical bastard.

His pictures of monstrous trees are something else altogether. Smooth lines awash in gray, these aren’t grumpy Wizard of Oz trees pitching apples at Dorothy or sacrificing their lumber to buy your love. These rotted trunks have malicious souls. In his answer to Shel Silverstein, The Wishing Tree, Noordzy has drawn a dark gash in the tree trunk, knots on either side of the “face,” the branches upheld fingers pointed at the sky, waiting to snatch and devour anything that might land there . . . and the tree’s beady wooden orbs are trained in your direction.

Screw Frog and Toad Are Friends. Give me some darkness amid that light.

To paraphrase Stephen King’s introduction of Clive Barker oh-so-many years ago: I have seen the future of children’s literature, and his name is Keith Noordzy.

“Kraken and Kraten with Aaron Kraten and Keith Noordzy” at the Box gallery, 765 Saint Clair, Ste. B, Costa Mesa, (714) 724-4633; www.boxboxbox.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through March 7.

 
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