June 24 2015 01:13 PM

The outsider artist works with his studio's ghost for his first-ever solo show in San Diego

Don Porcella
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

    Harry Mathews and Don Porcella are in sync. The former, an oil painter who died more than 15 years ago, occupied the same detached garage in Lemon Grove that Porcella currently uses as his studio.

    "Harry engineered all this," Porcella says, walking through the garage and pointing out objects like a handmade fan, wooden doorstops and a papertowel holder. "And if they weren't here already, I might've built the same exact stuff."

    Porcella appreciates his predecessor's penchant for making things by hand. His own work celebrates handicraft and folk art. Luckily, his landlord recognized the similarities in the two artists' tastes and asked Porcella if he wanted to dig through the packed garage before it was cleared out. He absolutely did.

    "At first I found this cup that had his name, Harry, on it and in the cup were these glasses," Porcella says, gesturing toward the vintage frames sitting atop his nose. "They're my perfect prescription. I was blown away."

    Inspired by the connection he feels to Mathews, Porcella is making new work that he considers a collaboration with the ghost of the dead oil painter. He'll be doing a series of mixed-media pieces using things he's discovered in the garage—an altered gas can, for example, and Mathews' rusty old nails hammered into the shape of a portrait on an old wooden board. The work will be in his solo show, Shapeshifter, opening at Low Gallery (1878 Main St., Barrio Logan), from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, June 26.

    The exhibition is a bit of a coming-home show for Porcella. The artist went to UC San Diego before heading off to San Francisco and eventually New York where he finished his higher education and quickly found success in the art world. He moved back to the region with his wife, Ginger Shulick Porcella, when she was hired as the executive director of the San Diego Art Institute last year.

    Best known for his comical, pop-culture-inspired sculptures meticulously crafted from lowbrow materials, the exhibition is titled Shapeshifter because Porcella's work takes on so many forms. The Mathews-inspired pieces, for instance, will be shown next to an oversized New Balance shoe and other soft sculptures made of pipe cleaners, his improvised encaustic paintings and left-handed drawings (the artist is right-handed but likes the contorted effect). There'll also be an installation element that he's still conceptualizing.

    As a whole, Porcella's work fits comfortably inside the categorization of "outsider art," yet by allowing himself to chase various whims and inspirations—like Mathews' ghost in the garage—it often means that no one, not even the artist himself, knows exactly what sort of work he'll make next.

    "I like the idea of mixing it up," he says. "I never want to become a slave to any one style."

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