Picture-book pathos: Artists deliver bitter pill

Randy Bolton, "Early Spring."
Randy Bolton, "Early Spring."

In India there is a small green fruit called the amla that tastes sour and bitter upon first bite, but which turns deliciously sweet when followed by a swallow of water. This effect is the opposite of what happens when viewing the exhibition, "Illustration Bitter & Sweet," currently at the University of Virginia's Ruffin Gallery.

Curated by UVA studio art prof Dean Dass, the show focuses on four artists who use friendly styles of illustration to create images with ominous implications. Case in point, Randy Bolton, whose colorful screen prints mimic the kind of illustrations found in children's picture books. In "Early Spring," a cheerful snowman's head sits in a puddle on a tree stump as cartoon-like flowers dot the surrounding white landscape, portending the death of our carrot-nosed friend.

Bolton also contributes two triptychs to the show that cleverly observe how we junk up and limit the world with materialism and negative thinking. Each set of prints progresses from left to right. In the orange and blue-dominated, "No Where, No Way, No How," a path through the woods, with fenced-off fields beckoning in the distance, runs into obstacles. In the final frame, the road abruptly ends at a tree with a sign reading, "No How," tacked to its trunk. An abandoned wagon sits broken and wheel-less nearby.

Russian Leonid Tishkov's work is more overtly political. His four pencil-and-watercolor illustrations focus on surreal creatures called Dabloids- giant, red, foot-like beings. Tishkov presents the creatures as precious things around which human life revolves, worthy of both love and military protection. Though humorous, the images are uncomfortable. But Tishkov's flat style includes surprising details, such as attention to fabrics, which provide lovely side notes to the heavy emotional content.

The exhibition also includes Tishkov's large "Anatomical Map of Russia A-H," a diagram constructed from eight framed lithographs that imagines Russia's topography as male and female sexual organs interspersed with digestive viscera. At the bottom Tishkov provides a wry account of the piece's creation written in the style of state propaganda.

Finnish-born Marja Ruta also laments the individual's relationship to the state. There is nothing humorous or sweet, though, about her crude drypoint illustrations that recall life during wartime. In contrast, Michael Krueger's flat pencil-drawn landscapes, reminiscent of high-school notebook doodles, are pleasantly cryptic with regard to their message.

Unlike the amla, these illustrations deceive with a sweet approachability that disguises bitter content.

The exhibition, "Illustration Bitter & Sweet," featuring work by Randy Bolton, Michael Krueger, Leonid Tishkov, and Marja Ruta, is on view through December 6 at UVA's Ruffin Gallery. 179 Culbreth Road. 924-6123.