In “Love Ireland: Foodies,” Regina Levin layers magazine cutouts over a picture of Irish cliffs. The glossy produce and skinny models are bright against grey and mossy bluffs. Levin’s work is artful and jarring: When set against a dull backdrop, the pears seem too juicy, the watermelons too pink, the women too thin. Stare at the collage and remember why you hate magazines — the manicured hands and glossy lips are only plastic. Our aesthetic ideals are only plastic. And what a brutal thought to have in such a lovely cupcake shop.
But “Visual Treats: Syntax,” the newest exhibit in Katalina’s Cupcakes — the pastry shop up the street from Timothy Dwight — is rarely that rough. The Syntax Artists, eight local women working in mixed media, have created an engaging, thoughtful display. Forty-four pieces decorate the shop’s walls and shelves, ranging from slight to substantial, dark to vibrant, pencil to encaustic. Order a coffee, pick up a flyer — a list of artists, titles, media, and prices — and then peruse the offerings.
By the cream and sugar, you’ll find another collage by Levin, “Untitled.” With buttons and bits of scratch paper, the work has a subtle charm, a balanced composition that’ll make you linger and stare as you stir your coffee. Despite their different styles, the Syntax Artists all claim the same mission: to “combine a variety of media in unexpected ways” and to “educate the viewing public about the extraordinary possibilities offered by mixed media art.” Further along the wall, discover these possibilities: Jan McLean’s acrylic faux encaustic, Kelly Taylor’s mixed media, Karen Larocque’s watercolors. Wander around, pick a favorite piece, perhaps number 34, “Soul Finder.” (Anne Doris-Eisner traces an oak leaf over a crimson and gold medallion.) Finish your coffee.
But the thoughtful “Love Ireland: Foodies” is at the back of the shop, hidden in shadow. A massive refrigerator hides Diane Ward’s bright collage, “Playing with Karen.” The lighting is bad, and walls are either crammed with art or empty. Some works are askew on their hooks, and pairings seem random. Why hang Kelly Taylor’s “Leaflet Serenades” next to Doris-Eisner’s “Soul Finder”? The busy “Leaflet Serenades” distracts, detracts from “Soul Finder”’s quiet grace. Taylor’s “Tree Alchemy,” along with a few other pieces, hangs behind the cupcake counter, far from other works. The cluster looks forlorn, an artistic island lost in a blank, yellow sea. In brief, “Visual Treats: Syntax” isn’t quite balanced. This isn’t thoughtful curatorial work.
And the art, too, looks for balance, toes the line between “pretty” and “kitschy.” With swirling pastels and fragments of cursive, McLean’s “Wordscapes #1” and “Reflections #1” are cute but trite. This is inoffensive art and the formula’s simple — combine pink and purple, hint at a sunset, pick an evocative title. (If you’re feeling brave, sketch a few music notes or draw a few flowers.) Taylor’s two “Leaflet Serenades” strike a similar chord. The colors are garish, the images stale. And Gretchen Wohlgemuth’s “Remembrance of Snow” would make a nice screen saver, bright and easy on the eyes. Much of “Visual Treats: Syntax” looks like intricate scrapbooking, and while the artists find inspiration in the natural world, their work is often bland.
Despite this prevailing Etsy aesthetic, some pieces, such as “Love Ireland: Foodies,” are thoughtful and complex. They’re not dull romantic images; they’re not just trees and leaves and beaches. Instead, they suggest an elaborate artistic vision. In her three “Undulations,” Doris-Eisner captures wood grain, drawing whorls and eddies as perplexing and perfect as fractals. She does all this in black acrylic, with not a hint of green or brown. And in “Aspens,” Jean Swanson transcends the average woodsy landscape. With strips of black and brown paper, she creates a textured, vivid piece. These quiet works, plain collages and simple paintings, are most compelling. They do not try too hard.
While the display is far from perfect, and the pieces sometimes trite, “Visual Treats: Syntax” grapples with many themes in many media. And the exhibit is extensive, giving viewers a chance to explore each artist’s technique. The possibilities on display aren’t quite as extraordinary as the Syntax Artists claim. But while you tour around, grab a chocolate cupcake — it’ll make the art feel less vanilla.