Hanson Howard Gallery, Ashland's longtime bulwark against a fading gallery scene, is holding an exhibition of new work by painter Robert Koch and sculptor Sara Swink.
Koch's paintings are compelling and carry with them a sort of reworked neo-expressionistic style that carries a quality of the naif, both in the sense of subject matter and in how the artist himself approaches his work. At 20, Koch made a trip to Japan, which (according to Hanson Howard) left a lasting impression on the artist's work; the color and impact of the daily experience in Japan has "imprinted his sensibility," although from the perspective of the viewer, Mr. Koch's work has a combined sweetness and grittiness that is more derivative of a Georg Baselitz or a Jean-Michel Basquiat than of any East Asian artistic heritage.
Koch's paintings are created from snapshots of anonymous people; his loose style and weirdly articulated figures — some half-man, half-beast, others shaped from the body of a woman and the back-end of a bird — create a clever contrast between the familiar figures of everyday life and the peculiar metamorphosis that might occur through extreme isolation and the solitary experience. A Fauvist-style Wolfman attempts to catch the attention of a woman at a bar. Elsewhere, an oversized rabbit and a chicken with its head in the clouds accost an elderly man on a bench. The paintings may seem sloppy to the untrained eye, but Koch is competent when it comes to strong composition and, as such, his work is interesting and worth any amount of time you may choose to spend with it.
It was smart of Judy Howard and Élan Chardin Gombart to show Koch's paintings with the excellent and psychologically impactful clay figures of Sarah Swink. A clay artist since the age of 8, Swink has an obvious mastery of the form which has manifested as whimsical depictions of animals and humans in various states in a sort of magical realism distinct to the artist. "Buoy" is a rabbit standing upright in a Nehru-style coat, pinned lavishly with unusual maritime artifacts.
In "Call to Action", a golem-like figure sits atop a ceramic tower covered in patterns invoking Leger — hands clasped as he calls out to an invisible army. With "Love Grows," Swink cleverly references the current political climate with an inter-species partnering between a sentient donkey a la Nick Bottom and a cat who clearly got the cream.
Both artists walk a fine line between quality professional work that carries with it a whimsy which fortunately doesn't lurch into the arena of design or decor. Swink gives a nod to a sort of Aesopian utopia, but manages to stay out of the trap of self-consciousness into which so many artists inadvertently fall. Koch — while possibly not as seasoned an artist as Swink — nonetheless has a sense of the absurd and the beautiful that carries this show into a realm of aesthetic interest that warrants a decent review.
Robert Koch and Sara Swink show at the Hanson Howard Gallery through Aug. 29. The gallery is at 89 Oak St. in Ashland.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.