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Cult Following 

Tripper Dungan and mail art at the Sanctuary


Portland-based painter Tripper Dungan likes UFOs, aliens and other subjects of pop conspiracy. A slew of his small, irregularly shaped paintings are scattered at rakish angles around the Sanctuary's comfortable, pew-filled exhibition space, as if someone fired a cartoon shotgun around the room.

UFO Cult might be the only exhibition you see this year in which every painting is 3-D. Dungan arranged red and blue highlights to endow his subjects with dimension and everything practically jumps off the wall when viewed through the cardboard glasses provided.

The artist describes this show as "a celebration of the culture surrounding out-of-this-world experiences." Dungan's cartoon world might be certifiably far out, but it's also down-home. Flying saucers, astronauts, Russian rocket scientists and petulant bombs appear alongside harbingers of domesticity like cats, ice cream trucks, busy wallpaper and animate rotary phones.

The members of this wacky ensemble couldn't be more ingratiating. Characters share a manic enthusiasm. Facial expressions range from crazed to glazed. Slack jaws and bloodshot eyes telegraph a permanent state of gobsmacked astonishment vis-à-vis the world.

Television seems important as a reference point. The arrangement of these subjects recalls the arbitrary way in which the images of TV programs and commercials follow one another — it feels like flipping channels. There's a radical superficiality about this pop universe that's founded in the presumption that it's all fungible: Everything gets treated like everything else. Aliens and Rocket Pops get equal time.

In recent years, the accepted wisdom has been that television in its traditional form has entered decline, that its days are numbered. It seems future generations may seek ponderously to understand what channel surfing meant to the Boomers and their successors, in the same way we struggle to grasp why the zoëtrope was hip.

Interpreters from the future, who may or may not also identify as our alien overlords: Check out Dungan's cast of strenuously wacky characters. (And when it comes time to appraise our culture, be kind.)

Dear Friend ... , the other show this month, presents a selection of mail art delivered to the Sanctuary in response to an exhibition call. "Artists were mailed a similar set of materials, and were asked to return a letter by rearranging the contents into a unique mail art piece," the show's organizers explain. "Artists were asked to interpret the concept of 'letter' broadly, and were limited only by the size and shape of an envelope." 

Correspondents included the near and far. (Some of the featured artists, who live at the Sanctuary, didn't even need a stamp.) The near/far theme in Dungan's show holds good here as well.

Word and image mingle freely. Pieces by Violet Crabtree and Molly Schaefer achieve a multilayered visual complexity that reminds one of medieval manuscripts, while those by Carissa Clark and Mike Sargent invoke collage processes from 20th-century avant-gardes. Multiple pieces stretch out the act of reading, with text running multiple directions.

The tone is intimate, verging on confessional. Introspective themes prevail. "Dear friend," one letter trustingly begins. An artist who signs himself Daniel handwrites the titular captions beneath a rough, austere trio of watercolors: "A Woman Finds Some Much Needed Solitude Beside the Abyss," "A Man and His Dog Comfort Each Other While Waiting for the Inevitable," and "Three Friends Walk a Rocky Mile to Meet their Maker."

There's something mannered and slightly precious about most of these efforts, but that seems inevitable for any treatment of the handwritten letter in 2016. We approach personal letters through a veil of nostalgia. How few of us now can send a personal letter through the mail without a twinge of self-awareness or even self-congratulation? It's hard to talk about the intrinsic qualities of the letter as a medium, but the history of modern correspondence suggests it has not been unusual writing a letter to elicit a reflective state. That introspection shows up in these artworks, in appropriately mannered fashion.

Space at the Sanctuary goes beyond framing the art — it enfolds and cradles it, literally wrapping round it, creating memorable and mind-expandingly non sequitur juxtapositions (the mushroom sculpture on the mantel, catty-corner to Dungan's Dipper picture).

The effect of these surreal juxtapositions has to be considered within the ambience of the Sanctuary at large: the pervasive smell of kari leaves and mustard seeds, the wholesomeness, the implied promise that it's possible to live the uplifting parts of the hippie dream without having to endure the sordid end. Anyone who likes works by contemporary artists like Thomas Hirschhorn should pay close attention to what community organizations like this one are doing.

Within the wide, wheelchair-accessible doors of the building formerly known as the Church of Christ, the vibe is like Athens under Pericles or Haight-Ashbury in 1965 forever — all protean creativity and positive energy with no Altamont in sight, more Rubber Soul than White Album. Is this supposed to be called utopian? It's an open question.

Over the Sanctuary's side door you may see hanging a dreamcatcher made out of recycled materials, in which the lenses from old reading glasses are suspended within macramé, and those old lenses catch the light and shoot beams across the floor in the afternoon sun, penetrating the dusty interior like lasers. It seems like a fitting metaphor for the transformation of personal vision that the Sanctuary proffers.

Tripper Dungan's work shows through April at the Sanctuary, with viewing hours during evening performances and Open Lab Hours (Wednesday noon-7 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-2 p.m.). See for details.

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About The Author

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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