In Matthew Couper's painting "Prior Convictions of Self-Trust," the central image is a devotional figure standing in a blender. There's plenty of other stuff going on, as is usually the case in Couper's lyrical, symbolism-packed work — some ivy, a cluster of small, naggingly familiar faces — but you come back to the figure, the blender. It's a self-portrait, with a twist: "I'm either the figure or I'm the blender," he says, "and I'm not sure which."
First, that's funny. Second, it's more than funny. You wonder: How can a guy not know if he's the chewer or the chewed, the thing being destroyed or the thing doing the destroying?
Now we're getting somewhere.
This piece, like most of the 13 others in Couper's one-night display at Alios gallery on Thursday night, is really about being caught between cultures — his native New Zealand and Las Vegas, where he (along with his wife, J.K. Russ, herself an exceptional artist) has lived for two years. References to both lands populate his canvases (yes, that's the Stratosphere Tower in some of them), along with an extensive vocabulary of images drawn from alchemy, anti-capitalist sentiment, philosophy, art history, pop culture and a dozen other sources — signifiers stuffed with meaning. He repurposes and remixes them into muscular, intensely allegorical paintings that explore his in-between situation. Which, he'll tell you, he hasn't figured out just yet.
So in that sense, "Prior Convictions" and the rest are lovely dispatches from a deep interior foray, documents by an artist still mapping difficult terrain. That's how he can not know if he's the consumer or the consumed. (Also, this is Vegas: You can be both. In fact, that's preferred.) And the faces? Kafka, Picasso, Philip Guston, Nick Cave. Influences. Guideposts. In that way, you can start drawing meaning from his works, however private the references sometimes are.
"Some people will look at it and think,'That's too hard — too hard to kind of negotiate my way around,'" he concedes. But do you really give a shit about art that surrenders everything on first glance? "I like to reward inquisitive people," Couper says. "I like to journey with them, too, because I don't necessarily get it all."
Now, if you really want funny — and I mean fuuuunnnnyyy — check out the painting "Retrograde Cabal." I won't spoil it with explanation, except to say: It, too, is more than just funny. The show at Alios will be your only chance to see what I'm talking about for a long time, unless you'll be in New Zealand. These works are being sent down under to be exhibited in Couper's homeland.
Oh, I should add this: scrimshaw!
SKINS & TEETH (paintings and scrimshaw) (not on actual whale teeth, however), 6-9 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 13 (one night only), Alios, 1217 S. Main St.