Instead of low-balling collectors with inexpensive “art as Christmas gifts,” Raleigh-based Garden Gallery’s The Christmas Show instead grabs you with a stunning array of abstractions by artists Wayne Taylor, Nancy Tuttle May, Margaret Senter, Susan Phillips, Thomas Teague, Martha Harris and Thomas Hughes. The works are welcome pieces, cutting through the typical decorative art seen at all-too-many commercial galleries around the Triangle.

Susan Phillips’ “Hillary the Contortionist” is a fully lit, snugly fitted, well-made box, which portrays Hillary Clinton with her head between her feet–still smiling, running for office or ending up in any number of alternate “futures”–her destiny determined by the spin of a wheel of fortune.

The smiling face of Clinton is a decent likeness, under which a toy monkey sweeps wood shavings into a pile that includes a magnet of Bill’s inauguration, a 1992 campaign button and a plastic chocolate chip cookie. The fun starts when you spin the wheel, which gives you a chance to predict what Hillary might be doing 10 years from now. Everything from dean of the Yale law school to Femi-nazi lesbian are possible futures for our former first lady.

“Once, back in my Artspace days, I made a box that showed George H.W. Bush with Graves’ disease. He held out his hand looking for donations to help him pay for his cure. People actually put money in it!” says Phillips, laughing, over the phone. “About one fourth of my work is political.”

There is nothing traditional about Phillips’ other stained glass pieces either. “Deliverance” has a collaged-face that looks like a praying Jesus, with the quote “delivery me from Dubya” floating above it. East Coast lowbrow: anything but subtle.

Thomas Teague, on the other hand, has David Hockney’s sense of human spacing and color schemes, and only flirts with surrealism when figures are involved. He paints landscapes (almost always with water) that seem compelling from afar, but upon closer inspection, loosen up to the point of distraction. In one piece, a majestic bridge, painted in perfect proportion, is interrupted by so many foreground tree branches that the scene is lost in a miasma of lines that seem not to identify with the tree or the bridge.

In the 8” high by 12′ wide “Hynpos,” Teague portrays a museum that includes Botticelli’s “Venus on the Half Shell,” an oversized surreal Van Gogh and modern sculptures. The physics of patrons and art is humorous when the head of a lady walking toward the viewer is right in front of the painted butt cheeks of a large bathing nude, perhaps by Renoir. As you scan right, 14 art enthusiasts examine a massive red and white abstract at close range (thus missing its impact). On the right of the painting, a woman looks at a large painting, in which her character appears to be in the painting as well.

Teague is a one-man lesson in modern art, but he does not render exact likenesses of works we should all know. He settles for impressions of famous works, but his ideas, full of surreal moments, do make you think.

For instance, in “The Cezanne Code” (“I had named that one ‘Cezanne on the Moon,’ until I read the Da Vinci code,” says Teague), eight separate images push at each other to form a complex conglomerate: a relief of the Three Graces, a shot of the earth from the moon, an impressionist Cezanne, a fruit bowl still life with a bar code-stickered pear, an artist’s wooden model, a fallen rose, a wooded landscape, and, at the bottom, a river scene.

Though the painting is not as complex as the novel, it makes an interesting conversation piece.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Teague’s experimentation with a completely different style of painting is a bit disconcerting. One work called “Christmas Improvisations” is a flop. It is rendered in bright and somewhat expressionist tones, but its lack of depth and feeling only detracts from the other works. Good abstractions strum your heartstrings, but this one is out of tune.

Thomas Hughes has historical axes to grind. He uses a polished set of techniques to pull off works like “In Corso,” where a sullen-faced Catholic bishop disintegrates, depicting the slow sad collapse of Catholicism. Chocolate oozes from the background, the bishop oozes green from his robe, white rain drips from above–but the scariest is the blood-red drip squirting from a green apple.

This painting gradiates from color tones to black and white to a line drawing as the eyes move from the top of the painting to the bottom.

Hughes’ “Fragments” is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” which he dissected into a futuristic work many years after the original. Here, Hughes separates a reclining nude wearing Cleopatra’s casual cotton headband. In her hand, he places an item of speculation: Is it a household feather duster, circa 1962, or is it the Middle Eastern hat and hair of a suitor, equally fragmented, approaching from below? A large paint drip colored “Dali blue” veils the woman’s eyes, which are nonetheless in “come hither” mode.

While Hughes makes us wonder about the nature of entropy (religious or physical), Martha Harris is bolder in her surrealism. In her charcoal-on-paper piece entitled “Time,” the main subject is a girl dangling in space, supported only by biting an apple attached to a string. Farther up in the painting, a monstrous bird breaks through a window while a toothy teddy bear in distress hovers in a cutaway dollhouse bedecked with a painting of large extracted human teeth. The last room sports a jack-in-the-box ready for cranking, but are you ready for what might jump out?

After viewing the works of these artists, it occurs to me that Harris’ work seems fitting for the funky home, Hughes’ is more targeted to a variety of surrealist fans and Phillips’ definitely have a political edge laced with humor. But it’s Teague’s intelligence that sticks with me as I exit the gallery to head back to my car.

Garden Gallery’s The Christmas Show runs through Jan. 21. (The works of established artist Mary Jo Bell makes a tour of the gallery’s holiday exhibit a further buffet for the eyes.) Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday, 1-5 p.m. 8404 Glenwood Ave., 787-2999.