For the love of Chubby

If the staid conservatism of the downtown-gallery scene has lost its appeal, then gobble up some River District-style Homeland Barbeque — one of the liveliest, most-provocative art shows to be served up in Western North Carolina in some time.

The exhibit was organized by Lauren Gibbes, a 24-year-old painter blessed with a social conscience — and a sense of humor.

In fact, that rare combination informs the whole show: Barbeque, its artists mostly under 30, takes on consumerism, greed and conformity in contemporary America, but treats those issues with a decidedly lighthearted touch.

Gibbes’ own work in the exhibit is technically proficient, conceptually competent — and sometimes downright seductive. In her game-show series, the phony glamour of that TV world is projected via glittery diamond dust. The painter’s color choices give her canvases a decided artificiality, completely compatible with this particular incarnation of the “something for nothing” American dream.

“The Luxury of Seasonal Depression” shows an attractive young woman with a ’70s-era flip-do confronted by a game-show microphone. Boxed letters on the painting’s right-hand side proclaim with ironic hopefulness: COLD WINTER MONTHS.

“We live in a country with so much money that we can play games with it,” the artist comments.

If Gibbes’ game-show paintings imply a complicit audience, Floyd Otis Wolfspider’s contribution to the show — a 3-foot American flag sketched on a piece of weathered plywood — demands one. A large glass bowl beneath the work is filled with chewing gum in three colors: Viewers can help themselves to a piece, then apply the used gum to the appropriate spot on the drawing.

But Barbeque‘s sculptural work is even more visionary — perhaps potent enough to take Asheville’s ideas about three-dimensional work into the 21st century.

John Payne, the River District artist best known for his steel dinosaurs, offers here a complex, Dr. Seuss-like totem of steel pipes writhing gracefully toward heaven. Models of metal subdivision homes perch at the end of extended cylinders at various levels along the still-untitled structure, while low in the piece’s interior sits a bowl holding a small, blue-and-white bowling ball reminiscent of pictures of Earth taken from space. Above that bowl sits another, and above that, another still. Smoke poufs from the upturned pipes, evoking a suburban cookout.

And speaking of food: Jason Weatherspoon’s “Chubby Wins Again” is a life-sized, ceramic baby, grotesquely fat and grinning jubilantly.

“Chubby,” its arms raised and roly-poly legs outstretched, is technically superb: The baby’s little toes beg to be tweaked, even in the face of the artist’s serious message (Weatherspoon considers “Chubby” an icon for America’s obsession with consumption).

His other exhibited work, “Blood of the Dinosaur,” is a ceramic bust with chiseled features much like those of a department-store mannequin. The top of the head, which morphs into a rectangular shape, is decorated with a big, old gas-guzzling Cadillac with huge fins.

Sean Pace’s kinetic “The Boxer” is quite literally on the go. The piece, standing about 6 feet high, consists of two steel circles a few feet apart, the largest at the top. Each is hung with bright-red boxing gloves that flail away at each other as the circles rotate, then suddenly stop. When the rotation then reverses, the conflict continues anew.

A viewer could enjoy this comment on world affairs and easily miss the skill with which Pace has constructed the piece’s supporting legs — also made of metal, but patterned after a Renaissance drawing. The musculature and shape of the bent leg and supporting foot are beautifully transposed into steel supports that brace the chaos looming above.

Homeland Barbeque shows at Wedge Gallery (129 Roberts St., lower level; 216-7897) through Sunday, Nov. 30. Hours are scheduled by appointment.

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