Tonight, Niche 3708 is a hot new art space in more ways than one. Tucked into a quiet residential corner of south Minneapolis, the tiny storefront gallery's track lights only magnify the evening's considerable swelter, as do the 20 or so mostly black-clad mammals viewing Yuri Arajs's Fire and Salvation exhibition in quarters close enough that individual body heat is an issue. The painter has even forsaken his signature long-sleeved oxford button-down in favor of a sporty, untucked blue-and-white print. "I'm getting another ice-cream sandwich," he says, a thin film of sweat surrounding his neatly trimmed goatee.
Surprisingly, Arajs's mixed-media-on-wood depictions of forest fires actually have a cooling effect on the room--maybe because they're all aftermath scenes. "It's the first time I've ever painted directly from images," the abstract minimalist--best known locally as the founder and director of Elliot Park's Outsiders and Others gallery--offers, frozen treat in hand. A tall, youthful-looking 38-year-old with tousled, reddish-blond hair, he's more than willing to reveal his sources. "Somebody gave me a San Francisco Chronicle a few months ago, I saw a forest fire photo, tore it out, put it up in my studio, and just obsessed about it."
The first fruit of his obsession, Forest Fire One, hangs near the gallery's entrance. It's a heavily lacquered, eggnog-colored expanse interrupted by spindly black tree corpses, oyster-shaped hotspots with fading embers in their centers, and sporadic white puffs of smoke. The dead wood--rendered so delicately that it seems calligraphic--combined with the painting's vast negative space and surface luster, suggests a tranquility and balance that wouldn't be out of place on a bamboo screen in the Forbidden City.
"For some reason, it's the one most people seem to like best," Arajs observes, "probably because it's so shiny. I prefer the others, just because I did a lot more--sanding different layers, varnishing different layers, using oil-based paints and water-based. The Asian thing seems to come naturally to me. People comment on it all the time, which is why I've always intentionally avoided studying it. Of course, if a book's in front of me, I'm not gonna close my eyes."
He hasn't been so successful in avoiding scholarly pursuits in general. Canadian by birth, Arajs moved to New Jersey at age five, eventually earning degrees in graphic design and studio arts before getting an M.A. in printmaking. Shortly after settling in Minneapolis immediately post-grad school, he landed a job doing set design for Homo Heights. "I think maybe it was Quentin Crisp's last film," he ventures. "Then I ended up being the set designer for Fingerhut for three years. It was the best fuckin' job." After mentoring artists with disabilities for a few years (at Interact Center and freelance), as well as holding down a dizzying array of jobs at various local galleries and museums, he founded Outsiders and Others with co-director Beth Parkhill.
Schooling notwithstanding, the "Salvation" part of the show wouldn't be out of place at the painter's regular stomping grounds. "Corrected readymades" in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa, the paintings are all modified black-and-white illustrations cut out of old Bibles. Some of the painter's enhancements are subtle, a simple line or circle. But one untitled stoning scene hides the victim with a metal triangle splotched with blood-red paint, in effect both censoring the violence and emphasizing it.
Lighting another cigarette, Arajs clarifies: "My intention was to take imagery that has all this connotation to it--just by looking at the paper and the images, minus any explanation, you kinda know they're from the Bible--and changing the dialogue, taking it out of context, while leaving the origin more or less intact. Religion is such a hot point in this country right now. I wanted to have some fun with it."