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Both Reger and Caldwell have previously shown work at 111 Minna, but this particular exhibition showcases the result of sustained turmoil, felt acutely on a collective and individual scale over the last two years.
Reger is known for divining the illustrated world of Emily the Strange, the teenaged counterculture icon known for her sharp wit and gothic looks. Emily is notably absent from Reger’s solo show, “Dark Matters,” however.
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“There was a conscious decision to really pull back from this, and let this [show] be completely myself, and not this cartoon character that I’m known for,” he says.
Gone is the single focal point of a girl in black. “Dark Matters” is an absorbing tangle of sharp shadows and gnarled spires, inspired by the icy precision of Swiss painter H.R. Giger and Surrealist bloat of German artist Hans Bellmer.
“The darkness has always been there,” Reger says, signaling the darkness of Emily’s world. “That’s an imagined kind of darkness, rather than a darkness of facing your fears.”
Over the last two years, Reger grappled with the latter form of darkness, facing his work without the palliative effect of alcohol and cannabis, substances that once accompanied his painting practice.
Sober, he started seeking further clarity, preferring to paint after 30-minute sessions of guided meditation.
“I made a practice of being in this great, clear headspace where nothing was on my mind at all,” he says. “I would work really gesturally, make big decisions really quickly, and I found that eventually stuff would emerge.”
Although it’s tempting to dwell on the emergence of darker elements, Reger’s work is also infused with a sense of frenzied play, featuring radiant shades of flamingo pink and royal blue.
These otherworldly landscapes are habitable, he suggests, drawing on the rich imagination of a curious child. Unsurprisingly, he cites Dr. Seuss as a primary influence.
Caldwell, too, draws on dark subject matter and pop cultural residue in his solo show, “Colorless Green Ideas.”
His technique is one of layering, introducing photorealistic details to abstract backgrounds. Through collage, he illustrates our cultural schizophrenia: the mad mingling of violence and consumerism, sex and theatre, history and science fiction.
The specter of Hollywood looms large in this particular collection. A rogue boom mic enters the frame of one painting, while an eerie trio of Mickey Mouse clones haunt another. The result is no rosy vision, but it approaches truth in its divorce from the illusion of a fixed, sensical reality.
Of course, this divorce from sense-making has become all too familiar in recent years.
Caldwell says with a laugh, “I was already doing paintings of rioting and explosions and people draped in plastic for the last 15 years, so [when COVID hit], I was like, ‘Ah! All my dystopian visions are coming true!’”
In part, Caldwell attributes his enduring black humor to his early exposure to ’60s underground comics.
“[Last Gasp’s] ‘Slow Death’ comics that were all about environmental collapse and ‘Zap Comix’ were the biggest [early] influence on me,” he says. “I was also reading a lot of heavy science fiction stuff that was very dystopian and very cautionary.”
Caldwell’s paintings are clearly products of a pregnant mind. Rich in complexity and color, his work appears to echo in its layered depth of field.
“I’m not a super happy painter,” he says. “When I’m painting, it just feels awful.”
Dark matter aside, both Caldwell and Reger are happy to share their work in a public space again, although neither one of them claim to know what the local art scene has in store.
“I’m sure there’s amazing stuff happening with kids doing interesting things,” Caldwell says.
“I’m just too old to know what the f— is going on.”
Rob Reger’s solo show “Dark Matters” and Adam Caldwell’s solo show “Colorless Green Ideas” run concurrently through June 22 at 111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna St., San Francisco. For hours and more information, visit https://111minnagallery.com/.