That Beautiful, Bestial Belly

New show at American Steel celebrates the beautiful and the depraved.

The name “Belly” has its genesis in a painting by local artist Cheyenne Pallo. Pallo said she began the painting after meeting a woman with a rather impressive life story — well, birth story. “Her mother decided to have her because the canary died,” Pallo explained. “That decision … is haunting to me.” In response, she created a seven-foot painting of a pregnant woman with a dead canary at her feet and called it “Because the Canary Died.” The woman is blue-green with geometric features and a prism of color on her face. The canary is bright, electric yellow against a dark linoleum floor.

The painting is a slight departure for Pallo, who often works with found photos and tries to capture a fully rounded character at a single moment in time. Lately she’s been getting into large-scale, narrative paintings. “My stuff is getting more and more grand,” she said, referring to both the size of her work and the severity of its themes. She now features bellies as a recurring motif.

Indeed, “belly” can be a loaded term, partly because it conjures images of our most primal biological functions — conception, digestion, pregnancy, regurgitation. (We’ll overlook the inward distinction between a stomach and a uterus.) “A stomach holds all our grotesque parts, but on the outside, everyone’s drawn to its loveliness,” said Pallo. “It’s beautiful, but god knows what’s in there.” As a painter, Pallo is drawn to things that mix crudeness with surface luster.

Hence the impetus for Pallo’s ambitious new exhibition, which will showcase works by eleven local artists. The theme, Pallo said, is the “codependent relationship between the beautiful and the depraved.” Belly runs for a week in West Oakland’s American Steel warehouse (1960 Mandela Parkway), a huge industrial compound that resembles an airplane hangar. The size of the space inspired each artist to increase the scale of his own work, said Pallo. John Casey, famous for his illustrations of weird, mythical creatures with human parts, will contribute a few giant paintings of his own. Slow foods crusader Sam White is making an installation that looks like a secret garden. His recent “Italian futurist” banquet at SF MOMA included the live carving of an 800-pound steer carcass. Selene Gibbous will present bizarre, patchwork apparel that mixes 19th-century Gothic styles with punk-rock expressionism. Zack Kasten and Zack Sternwalker will present short films. Opening night on Friday, Jan. 15, will feature an incongruous lineup of bands, including noise outfit Religious Girls, Jel from Anticon, and singer-songwriters Chelsea Wolfe and J. Irvine Dally. Belly promises visceral pleasure on the surface — and beneath that, a weird knot of complicated ideas. Pallo says it will make good on its name. 8 p.m., free. Through Jan. 22.


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