SCARRED AND AGITATED Mullen’s Let’s Pretend.
William Schaff's art is full of bloody warmongers, flaming demons, terminally ill patients, ecstatic saints, and drunks vomiting up heaps of emaciated bodies. His haunted black and white scratchboard drawings, amazingly ornate paper cuts, and obsessive embroideries bring to mind the German Expressionism of George Grosz and John Heartfield, though the politics in Schaff's art tends to be more indirect. In fact, Schaff's through line is a feeling of dread, as if Armageddon is just around the corner.

The Warren artist is featured along with Stephen Brunelli and Travis Mullen of Providence in the exhibit "Conversations" at West Side Arts (745 Westminster Street, Providence, through June 18).

Schaff's drawing and collage, War! It's What's For Dinner, depicts a bunch of generals and dictators gathered around an ornate table, drinking and waving their guns, relishing some bloody debacle. Elsewhere, a blue and black embroidery shows a man being raped by another guy in prison. Homesteader depicts a man with skulls for eyes, and a strange emaciated fetal figure on his back. He hoes the decrepit fields of a farm as a barn burns in the distance. It's a nightmare of a devastated earth; the smoke and the missile-shaped silo make one think of nuclear war. 

BOXED IN Heuser’s Candy for Rothko.
The show includes some of Schaff's color painting and embroidery but, when working with a full palette, he often misplaces his sense of light — and especially darkness. His formidable talent comes across best in limited color works — like a black and white magazine photo of a man pressing his lips to a woman's belly pasted onto a swirling yellow and red pattern. Schaff draws skull masks on their faces and cartoon word balloons from their mouths that say, "I love you but I don't want this baby." The goth stylings of much of his work can overshadow an undercurrent of tenderness that conveys close-to-the-bone feelings of loss and hurt.

Travis Mullen's black and white acrylic, charcoal, and beeswax paintings of stags, wolves, guns, and crows might bring to mind the paintings of RISD teacher Duane Slick, though Slick's work seems to seek a mesmerizing calm, while Mullen's work is gouged and scarred and agitated. Mullen seems to still be figuring out his touch and imagery, but in his best works like Let's Pretend, which features a stencil of a black deer, the thick, scratched impasto paint becomes the star.

Stephen Brunelli makes political assemblage paintings like bin Laden, a loose double portrait of the terrorist above a row of mini Che Guevara T-shirts, as if challenging how people decide who's a terrorist and who's a hip freedom fighter. He also paints scenes packed full of things going on, like House for Sale in Pittsburg, a charming cut-away view of an apartment building. Brunelli too seems to still be finding his style — his loose, expressionist realism might recall Stanley Spencer — but he's on to something.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Che Guevara, Museums, George Grosz,  More more >
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