Don’t Try This at Home /
    Josh Banaszak and Mark Keffer

    Doubting Thomas Gallery is known for its cracked-out aesthetic. Several interior walls
    were stripped down to lathe and gaps years ago, and have stayed that way. It’s not a
    bad look, ringing true in the context of Tremont’s only partly gentrified, still mean
    streets. The work on display tends to match, featuring samples of urban decay and
    personal trauma, falling somewhere between Neo-Dada and Art Brut, absurdity and
    angst. Only too willing to bash its way through polite fictions, sticking metaphorical
    fingers (or whatever) directly into the socket of some higher, harsher truth, the art
    can be amateurish or just too stoned to get off its butt.

    On the other hand, sometimes it weaves around such limitations and turns out to be
    absolutely great. Painter Josh Banaszak’s amazing canvases in his show This is a
    Test are the real thing, not least because they do everything wrong, and care what
    we think like a pot hole or a punch in the nose cares what we think. On a scale of one
    to ten, Banaszak’s works forgot to take a number: they succeed in eluding the idea
    that they are paintings at all and just push to the head of the line.

    The twenty-odd paint on canvas or on panel rectangles vary from small and skinny to
    big and fat; size seems to be irrelevant. Colors tend to be straight out of the tube, or
    the can, so there are broad swathes of vivid, crinkly alkyd green or blue or red.
    Banaszak has a young daughter named Beatrice whose painterly manner he is
    understandably in awe of. He confesses, even brags, that most of the paintings at
    This is a Test are blatant imitations of her work.. This is something that almost any
    painter with expressive ambitions will appreciate – Picasso wanted to be like a child,
    and for that matter Jesus said the same thing. But few pull it off.

    Banaszak has it nailed. Take a work like "Great Skies." It’s a typical kid’s rainbow
    composition, bumpy colors arching dead center beneath a floppy white cloud and
    shreds of yellow that might be birds or spills or anything. Under the top layer of
    imagery a bunch of dim parallel pencil lines run across the upper half and straight up
    and down on the bottom half. They seem like a reference to elementary school-issue
    ruled paper, but Banaszak says they’re also a drawing of the board construction of
    his porch at home. It’s worth noting that Banaszak is a carpenter by trade, with a
    1999 arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art. Given that background, it’s not
    implausible to hallucinate both building plans here, and even a shaky quotation of
    Canada’s great minimalist painter Agnes Martin, known for her often almost invisible
    parallel lines, here peeking out from under a shovel-full of raw experience and
    random association. Words written in red paint are, the artist comments, “things that
    belong in the sky, and some that don’t.”

    Banaszak specializes in things that don’t necessarily belong in a painting, at least not
    in close association. Like rebus-style pictograms unhooked from specific meaning,
    they add up to less, and more, than the sum of their parts. “Your ticket…Your
    in…really it can be” reads the legend brushed in black paint along the top yellow-
    painted margin of a smaller canvas. The rest of the horizontally oriented work is
    bright orange and its mysterious title reads Fang vs Keyman. A vague, bluish shark’s
    tooth-shaped stroke of paint is discernible on the left, and a blue skeleton key floats
    over toward the right. It would be unfair to try to figure this out – it just doesn’t mean
    anything much. But the way in which it disconnects from narrative significance is way
    cool. It’s like watching electricity jump across a connection, just at the moment
    someone yanks the plug and the power fails. Throughout the show Banaszak keeps
    pulling cognitively comi-tragic stunts like this, and most of them are on the money. In
    an intense little room with shiny red walls "Lips and Palette at the Same Time" is, as
    the title asserts, a painting he used as a palette for itself. The lips stand alone,
    imagery-wise, opening on some pretty bad Marlboro teeth. Around them the
    background morass is a dusty green, erupting in lumps of squeezed-on red and
    yellow and white – a pox of colors. Like every canvas in the show, this one looks like it
    was used as a trampoline, billowing painfully on its supports, and like the rest is
    discreetly littered with cat hair, dust, woodchips, and the occasional gnat. You can’t
    fake such insouciance. It works brilliantly for Banaszak, but kids, don’t try this at home.

    Mark Keffer’s paintings, on display a few blocks away at another Tremont gallery --
    exit {a gallery space} -- aren’t nearly as messy, but they share an almost desperately
    playful way of suspending the liveliness of paint between abstract qualities like
    pattern, and opacity on the one hand, and an agile vocabulary of representational
    shapes on the other. Keffer calls his show Future of Heads, and sure enough his
    acrylic on panel and paper works look like stills from an intergalactic version of South

    "American Gothic" is a four foot square depiction of a truly odd couple. The figural
    outline on the left has rabbit ears and is a cold shade of pink; its partner looks more
    like a skull, rendered in white with a knobby horn or part of a spinal column sticking
    out of its top. Neither has any features, but appears to have been carved from a
    stack of bricks – or maybe these are outlines only, windows opening onto masonry-
    like dimensional layers. Behind them a nacreous metallic blue seems to glow gently.
    Circles linked in various ways are visible in or under this sanded-down blue, inscribed
    over the fine sideways grain of Keffer’s plywood surface like aerial views of crop
    circles, or maybe the alien blueprints for them. Seven gray and white painted circles
    bob over “head” across this ground, like bubbles or machines or maybe an inscription
    in some future alphabet of circles.

    Keffer explains, “I want to construct a world comprised of images and meanings culled
    from the fringes of consciousness, creating a kind of distant-future fantasy where
    animal, vegetable, and mineral have merged and are fused with pure abstraction.” In
    line with this, several works on view seem to be sprouting roots or branches, like
    potatoes or onions, or flowering bulbs. The smaller Future Head (14”/11”) looks
    something like two spuds, one big and one small, sharing an all-over stocking cap
    that joins them along the bottom edge of the panel. Then again, the knitted-looking
    lateral stripes go straight across, like TV interference, and don’t imply any underlying
    features or volume, so again the shapes are more like openings onto a flat striped
    plane, rather than a description of an object in real space. As elsewhere Keffer’s
    colors are counter intuitive, stacking bands of pale lime green with synthetic, Tang
    orange and black. The background erodes to light gray from scratchy black, spiking
    in at the edges. A bouquet of orange tuberous branchings spurt from the turtleneck
    top of the larger entity-aperture, while others gesture, arm-like, from the side.

    Several works on paper are executed partly in blood. The blood is Keffer’s own and
    yields a beautifully modulated background of red stripes, clean-edged and sculpted
    by the artist’s ultra-meticulous taping technique. This visual subtlety in itself might be
    a good enough excuse for using it, but the emotional and bluntly physical resonance
    of blood (or the thought of blood, since we’re trusting Keffer on this) adds all sorts of
    strange echoes to his hybrid figurative abstraction. Keffer prefaces the titles of this
    series with the words “present-day,” as in "Present-day Head" and "Present-day
    Couple (Modern Lovers)." Five-pointed stars of various sizes rendered in a pinkish
    tan acrylic are sown erratically over the wall of blood in all four of these studies. Here
    and there the blood, so discreetly constrained to its compositional use, breaks loose,
    spattering and “bleeding” a little in the white margins. One begins to think about
    foreign wars, and present-day American wounds. In "Present-day Couple" the blue-
    striped heads are conjoined, as if kissing, inscribed against a tight universe of careful
    blood and unlikely stars, as improbable as love.

[Cleveland Free Times 5/21/08]
Lips and Palette at the Same
Time, Josh Banaszak, oil on