Mr. Tomatohead 

New works: Fred Stonehouse
Ruschman Art Gallery
Through Feb. 24


Surreal or just plain strange? That’s the question that prods and pokes my analytic tendencies as I try to make sense of Fred Stonehouse’s paintings. Stonehouse, who exhibits solo shows at Ruschman Art Gallery every year or two, has steadily built up a following beyond his original Midwestern haunts — hometown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, plus Chicago and Minneapolis — with recent shows in California and Washington state.

As Stonehouse continues to evolve, I continue to try to make sense of his surrealist/medieval/ outsider art/magical realist/just plain odd imagery replete with glossy portraits of sympathetic monsters shedding great big crocodile tears, à la Christ or the Madonna. Are these self-portraits of the artist? Are they comments on the transmutability of religious iconography in the hands of a brilliantly original artist? Or perhaps both — and more?

In Stonehouse’s current Ruschman exhibition, winter has taken hold: gone are the Baroque crimsons, glittering gold tones and the elaborate antique frames; here now are frameless canvases of icy near-narratives depicting the same tormented souls in various states of action or seemingly oblivious victimhood.

“Memory of Lost Time” is one of a few large canvases among a number of smaller ones, characteristically buffed in a shimmering gloss, rendering the snowy scene all the more frigid. Atop an endless expanse of frozen water, one of Stonehouse’s typical man-beasts, this one dark-skinned wearing a white body suit, holds one end of a rope tied to the leg of a naked figure who dives into a neat circle of water cut into the ice. More ropes are staked into the ice, taut with the tug of someone or something underwater. In the distance, a ship appears made of ice except for a fire burning on its deck. The winterscape recedes into a green sky punctuated by the decorative flourish of oversized, elaborately tendriled snowflakes.

In fact, lots of hunting and fishing is going on here. In other paintings, a man-faced owl descends upon a figure whose limbs are fashioned from birch branches, hauntingly foot- and hand-less, one limb plunging into ice; a severed, bleeding head wearing a mask of antlers floats, smiling; a man-faced furry bug also grins, despite the arrow impaling his middle, as drops of blood leave a trail below in the snow. And of course there’s the figure with the tomato head — another Stonehouse oddity begging for explanation. Or is it a human heart? It almost doesn’t matter: Both bespeak vulnerability and the furthest reaches of inner turmoil. The ever-present tears drive the point home.

Stonehouse is said to draw upon his own memories — experiences and perceptions he has drawn into himself, only to dredge them up in these fantastical imaginings built around a familiar icon or a German neighbor, or the struggle between good and evil so forcefully carved into a Catholic psyche. Stonehouse’s figures explore these dark realms, as if to suggest or offer hope that the deeper we plunge, the closer we come to the light.

New Works by Fred Stonehouse is on view through Feb. 24 at Ruschman Art Gallery, 948 N. Alabama St., 317-634-3114 or www.ruschmangallery.com.

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