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Utilitarian Objects Exude Meaning in S. D. Exhibit

Whether wood, paint, stone, masking tape or imitation gold leaf, the materials used by Steven Criqui and Michael Cuddington transcend their utilitarian status. More than just neutral elements serving as vehicles for external meaning, these materials are often the source of that meaning.

The two San Diego artists, now showing at the Dietrich Jenny Gallery (660 9th Ave., through Feb. 4), approach themes as disparate as suburban kitsch and the beleaguered landscape, but both demonstrate a deep respect for the evocative potential inherent in their materials.

Criqui paints icons of the nondescript, the functional and decorative facets of outdoor domestic life. Framing these fragmented scenes of garages, landscaped yards and paved pathways with overwhelmingly large or bulky frames, he glorifies the mundane and often transforms it playfully into a subject of religious import.

In “Flagstone Resurrection,” he paints a typical suburban vignette with shrubs, a low fence, lawn and walkway. While utterly undistinguished in form, these elements become coyly transfigured through Criqui’s use of imitation gold leaf to paint the background and the pathway.

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Gold was used in religious painting up through the Renaissance to signify the richness of both earthly and divine realms, and here Criqui updates the practice, adding his own wry touch. The painting’s frame is arched, like the protective dome of heaven in earlier renditions, and is studded with relics of the scene portrayed, in this case, in chunks of pale green quartz.

Criqui may not convince us that such common scenes and building materials are worthy of worship, but he does raise them from their ordinary state of benign neglect to one of special attention and focus. In “Little Pink Bush,” he enshrines a perfectly rounded shrub aglow with blossoms within a house-shaped wooden frame. Centrally placed and isolated against a multicolored ground, the bush becomes an object of adoration and reverence. Criqui restores the dignity it has lost in its domestication and bestows upon it an endearing sense of wonder.

Other works, such as “Water My Lawn,” elicit laughter more than awe. Here, Criqui frames a truncated view of a garage door, trellis and pavement with a thick band of lava chunks and sprinkler heads embedded in vibrant green plaster. Such shallow parodies, however, are offset by other works in which Criqui’s sensitive, reverent regard for the forces of nature dominates, and he lifts the banal to a more powerful, magical state.

In “Santa Ana,” he pairs two scenes of spare desolation, one more charred and burnt than the other. In one of the two joined panels, he depicts a tree, whose flame-like contours of deep green enclose a center defined by the lyrical patterns of charred wood grain. Details like these lend Criqui’s work a dimension of elegance and depth even more promising than the easy humor evident in this first, large-scale show of his work.

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Cuddington, who has been represented in several local shows since 1986, presents four concise and poignant wall pieces. Using long planks of raw plywood in irregular shapes that suggest a leftover or found origin, Criqui constructs brief visual poems that, because of their extreme dimensions (each measures about 1 by 8 feet), extend beyond a single frame of vision and are thus experienced through time as well as space.

Each suggests a dualism between the actual and the conceptual states of a thing, the referent and its sign. In “Freeway,” for instance, a simple horizontal line, emblematic of the dividing line between land and sky, skewers a painted image of an actual horizon in the natural landscape. Following the line of both horizons across the 8-foot length of the work entails actual visual passage through space. The title, “Freeway,” however, disturbs this quiet trek by alluding to the randomness with which we bisect and lacerate the landscape, interrupting its natural contours with an artificially imposed vein of traffic.

In “Once,” Cuddington juxtaposes a glimpse of spare, unadulterated landscape with the word “humanity,” sprawled out in capital, stenciled letters across a long wedge of wood. The surface, marked, worn, hammered and scraped, adds humility to what might otherwise appear a slick and pretentious statement. Instead, “Once” lingers as a cryptic, slightly melancholic poem about loss, for the letters spelling humanity disappear, cut off at the narrower end of the wedge.

Though another work, “Whole,” models itself too flagrantly after the style of Manny Farber, it too presents a cryptic rhyme between an object--individual packaged servings of cream--and its category, label or code, the word “food.” Cuddington’s work possesses a strong physical presence through omitting as much information as it includes, prompting the viewer to assess the balance.

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