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The Scavengers

Scott Calhoun and Jeanne Lorenz are making art from what's around them: porn and tchotchkes

Job perks are the primary reason artists are willing to endure penury as employees of the Museum of Fine Arts. They aren't perks in the traditional sense: Nobody is getting a company car, but fuel for ideas is abundant.

Scott Calhoun's eclectic collaged paintings grow directly out of his day job at the MFA library. Calhoun gets paid for ordering obscure books for curators and checking in glossy auction catalogs for sales of decorative or Asian arts. In fact, his job exposes him to a broader range of visual material than even his two art degrees did. Many of these visually scavenged images make their way into his paintings via the wonders of color Xerox, but on the journey from printed matter to artwork component, the images become fantastically mutated. In his off hours, Calhoun, a true Renaissance man, expands his image search beyond library holdings to pornographic magazines. Because he wants full figures rather than cropped torsos -- "mainstream porn cuts the arms and legs off," he says -- many of his photos are from leg- and foot-fetish magazines. (Like we said, it's eclectic.) Rare museum objects merge with the images of women to create exotically erotic creatures.

Man on a Silver Mountain (2002) features swirling precipices derived from 1,000-year-old Chinese paintings. The lush, gestural brushwork contrasts nicely with the crispness of the collaged elements: Perched on an attenuated mountain, a robed netsuke figure gazes out over the sparse landscape; floating in the sky like a seraph, a Vargas Girl-esque body sprouts an 18th-century, rococo-framed portrait of a woman's head with a bouffant powdered wig.

Scott Calhoun collages elements from art catalogs and pornographic magazines to create pieces like Wetlands.
Scott Calhoun collages elements from art catalogs and pornographic magazines to create pieces like Wetlands.

Endless Possibilities for Mistakes (2002) is densely and beautifully composed on the patterned ground of a dark kimono. On the left, grave scholars sit at a table. Above, celestial figures of squatting naked women with splayed legs and heads made from Victorian miniatures float in a sky of floral clouds like strange insects.

In Face Flusher (2001), a geisha's head levitates above her body, seemingly sprouting from a gilt vase of flower branches. The purple-blue background is sprinkled with tiny flowers as well.

The works that are the most tactilely successful make the collaged elements feel almost embedded in the thick matte surfaces. Such Varieties of Licentiousness (2002) presents elegantly copulating couples (from ancient Chinese smut) in a flat interior space colored by shades of lavender. A giant phoenix flies overhead, gazing down and grinning.

Soft Milk (2002) is a tiny, subtle and well-crafted painting in which nude geisha figures from Edo-period ukiyo-eprints wander over a stark pearl-gray background. Understated, elongated white rectangles suggest an architectural space, but the figures lounge in an ultimately undefined environment.

Calhoun's compositions combine the erotic perversity of Hans Bellmer's poupées with the secondhand exotica of chinoiserie and the psychologically unsettling juxtapositions of the surrealists.

While Calhoun is flipping the pages of Sotheby's catalogs, historical tomes and specialized smut, Jeanne Lorenz is cruising eBay for the perfect objet trouvé. (Someday soon, someone will write a dissertation on eBay's influence on early-21st-century culture.) Lorenz paints odd, large-scale grisaille watercolors of items like ceramic animal salt 'n' pepper shakers. Her subjects are the kinds of things you used to be able to find easily at Goodwill -- before Antiques Roadshow, HGTV and even Martha Stewart made America hyperaware of the value of kitsch. Cheap vintage tchotchkes are no longer cheap.

But the artist's über-kitsch finds are not faithfully recorded. The objects are provocatively arranged and rendered with subtle distortions erupting from their glassy surfaces -- their vintage wholesomeness effectively subverted. In Squirrel (2001), a ceramic member of the order Rodentia is knocked face down, exposing the circular orifice of its base. Its exaggerated eyelid is closed in sleep, or perhaps death. The white of the paper barely shines through the film-noir environment in which we have come across this comically lurid scene of ceramic bestiality.

Lorenz's images function as self-portraits for the artist; the figures' oddly distorted eyes are versions of her own. In Snowed (2000), for instance, a tiny figure in a snowsuit closes one eye and peers out with the other. It sits next to an unidentifiable kitten-dog-lion-bear hybrid. The forms are painted smooth, glossy and round. An eye bulges out of the animal's head as if the artist were trapped inside and trying to push her way through it. Their mouths frozen, the figures stare at the viewer in mute appeal. The work is unsettling because of its skewed presentations of the familiar; it hints at disturbing undercurrents running through even the most banal things and places.

Artists are scavengers, culling the visual world for material that they bend to their own purposes. Calhoun and Lorenz have taken the disparate materials at their disposal and used them to explore their individual agendas -- from fictive exotica to the ominous undertones of Grandma's curio cabinet.

 
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