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From Big Foot to the Bible 

Lush Newton and Susanna Bluhm at First Street Gallery

Ten pink flamingos? Check. Thirty-nine large pink donuts? Check. Space Ghost, Batman, Wonder Woman and a dancing Big Foot? Check. This might sound like a laundry list of images from that dream you had the night you ate way too much Thai curry, but it's not. It is a partial list of the objects and images you'll be confronted with at Lush Newton's new exhibition, entitled "Bread & Butter."

If you're in the mood for some visual stimulation this month, HSU's First Street Gallery in Eureka is the place to be. From Newton's Pop inspired mixed media installation and sculptures to Susanna Bluhm's large, painterly canvases, First Street is full of things that catch the eye.

Newton's background working as a character artist for Disney and Hallmark certainly makes sense when you see her work, but it isn't responsible for her fascination with cartoon imagery and popular culture. That's an obsession that began long before she entered the workforce. "I've been drawing since I was two years old and heavily influenced by The Mickey Mouse Club, Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers [cartoons], and I used to try to fight it," Newton said. "[But] weird packaging, cartoons, billboards, design, all of that pop culture stuff -- I can't turn away!"

Many of the materials used in Newton's mixed media sculptures and installations are salvaged. She has an abundant source of good cardboard from area merchants and she knows a where to find stashes of free wood. Newton hoards materials. The Arcata studio where she works looks like you'd expect: cluttered, colorful and full of surprises. Everywhere your eye stops, there is some sort of wonderful visual contradiction: baby shoes with roller-skate wheels, a human skull next to a small statue of Bob's Big Boy, a delicious looking crock-pot of stew (yes, real stew) next to an industrial respirator -- the studio itself is a kind of shrine to the marriage of popular culture and the fine arts.

Newton's creations bring to mind the work of other contemporary Pop artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, but Newton's work has a decidedly more rustic feel that sets it apart. Her new exhibition promises to be a floor to ceiling experience offering moments of familiarity quickly overtaken by the rush of the unexpected.

The inspiration for Seattle-based painter Susanna Bluhm's work couldn't be further from Newton's. Many of the canvases on display in Bluhm's exhibition, "My Heart's a Little Fast, but Otherwise, Everything's Fine," are from a group of paintings inspired by the poem "The Song of Songs of Solomon" from The Old Testament. Even the titles of many of the works are drawn from the poem's lines.

While the poem served as inspiration for the series, the paintings are by no means literal representations of the poem itself. "It's an abstract connection, but it's a strong one," Bluhm explained, something she kept thinking about as she worked on the imagery. Other paintings in the exhibition are from a group of work based on photos Bluhm took of Croatian islands during her travels, but also of traffic islands around her Seattle neighborhood.

Bluhm, an HSU graduate who has exhibited nationally and internationally, paints landscape environments that are certainly abstract, but they also offer glimpses of recognizable forms that help pull the viewer into the scene -- locating or placing the viewer within the work.

This act of combining representational and abstract elements allows viewers to create personal narratives and associations. "I like having the mix because then the stuff that people can recognize kind of makes them think that they might also be able to recognize the abstract stuff if they looked hard enough, and then it starts to make the recognizable stuff look more abstract -- so I kind of like it when they inform each other like that," said Bluhm. But perhaps the first thing you notice when looking at her paintings is color. Her palette is saturated and inviting. "I love color and I think it's probably the most important tool that I use as a painter," Bluhm said.  "I do want people to experience some kind of pleasure in the color... a rich, rewarding experience."

The Lush Newton and Susanna Bluhm's exhibitions will be up at First Street Gallery (422 First St. in Eureka) from Oct. 2 until Nov. 4. There will be a reception for the artists on Saturday, Oct. 6, from 6-9 pm. in conjunction with Arts Alive! In addition, Bluhm will give a slide lecture about her work the previous day, Oct. 5, at 5 p.m. in Room 102 in the Art Building at Humboldt State University.

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Jason Marak

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