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Old White Guys Rule 

Tom Wudl, Charles Garabedian, Tom Knechtel and Peter Voulkos

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002

Just recently, for some reason I seem to be getting the same question from a lot of people: So who do I think is making good paintings in L.A.? Conveniently, there are three current solo painting shows that collectively demonstrate one answer. Though the revelation is bound to be controversial, they expose that which deep in our hearts we know to be true -- the best art is made by aging white men with old-school technical skills and classicist tendencies. Tom Wudl and Charles Garabedian at L.A. Louver and Tom Knechtel at Grant Selwyn Fine Art are all well over the median art-star age of 12 -- Garabedian by a good 66 years -- and their paintings share many surface similarities. Each is a gifted draftsman in a different way, but all three work with a vivid, wide-ranging and pleasing palette to depict recognizable spaces and figures imbued with mythological and literary portent.

On a more conceptual level, these three shows constitute a primer on how painting can chart the process of its own creation, the mental journey for which the finished work is the final destination. From all appearances, Tom Wudl would seem to be starting out with the clearest image of the end of the line, his meticulously rendered stagelike tableaux looking as if they‘d been plotted out in their intricacy before brush touched canvas. This turns out not to be the case -- the gallery was unable to provide me with images of the larger works, because the artist had made substantial changes to them since they had been photographed. Still, the overall effect is one of intense deliberation. Wudl’s new paintings are typically dense and clogged with specific reference. For example, the artist uses the images of Laurel and Hardy and the commedia dell‘arte Harlequin figure to stand in for himself, and humanity, in the face of the vicissitudes of chance and the tragicomic futility of all human attempts to get it right -- through painting in particular.

At least I think he does. While some of Wudl’s symbology is straightforward, much of it is deliberately hermetic, turning away the inquisitive, interpretive mind and frustrating the desire for a coherent narrative -- getting it right is just as difficult for the viewer as it is for the artist. Still, it‘s easy to get a sense of the artist’s concerns -- all three of the largest works show paintings within paintings, and are variously littered with clock faces, playing cards, violas, plant life and castoff underwear. One piece, The Enlightening beings, Disorder and Confusion, distributing the gift of ineptitude for the benefit of mankind, depicts a version of a smaller Laurel and Hardy picture in the show, resting unfinished on an easel. Further inspection reveals this to be illusionistically contained within yet another painting, resting on a pair of paint cans labeled ”YES“ and ”NO.“ Trompe l‘oeil playing cards are scattered around them.

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Time, chance, intention, death, desire, the unbridgeable gap between life and art and the constant, hopeless human need to bridge it -- these are the continuously reshuffled themes in Wudl’s deck. With these, he painstakingly details every a priori reservation as to why these paintings shouldn‘t work. Paradoxically, embracing this fundamental futility frees Wudl to pursue the perfection of his craft in infinite detail, resulting in dazzling canvases filled with patchworks of virtuosic painting and drawing. Unfashionable and idiosyncratic, his paintings convince us that pleasure and discipline can remain rewards unto themselves, even in the face of entropy, and even if we never get it right.

Charles Garabedian’s and Tom Knechtel‘s works are also unfashionable and idiosyncratic, symbolic and narrative, and their images, like Wudl’s, dance the line between frustrating obliqueness and an overall saturation of dreamlike import. But they differ in significant ways. Garabedian‘s compositional strategies and painting technique are as immediate and improvisational as Wudl’s are painstaking and predetermined. Fragments of cartoonish images jostle with blobs that oscillate between abstraction and image, piling up in illusionistic space and on painting‘s flat surface until a certain equilibrium is achieved. The results are quintessential modern paintings, engaging playfully with the entire history of art in a spirit of experimentalism: not knowing what the end result is going to be. More often than not, the results are haunting, gorgeous, ominous and funny.

Garabedian, nearing 80, is at the peak of his powers in new large canvases like Garden, a melange of body parts, bamboo sticks and decorative fragments swept down toward the viewer in a torrent of pinkish-gray paint that engulfs four-fifths of the picture; Forest, with its densely composed, seemingly offhand architecture of soft, shifting geometric facets; and Martyrs’ trio of mythologically portentous surrealist personages -- like Max Ernst if he‘d ever learned to paint from his shoulder. These and several other masterful works are given added depth by the inclusion of a few relative clunkers -- experiments that didn’t quite jell, maps to a place not so nice to visit, but emphasizing with their very awkwardness the profound, positive and encompassing insecurity from which they spring.

Knechtel‘s painting strategy falls somewhere between these two approaches. While his awesome animal drawings, both the acid-hued pastel renderings on colored paper and the economical and elegant ink gestures, are straightforward and iconic, his oil paintings are about as roundabout as they come. In overarching, cumulative flourishes that resemble the elegant tracery of subatomic-cloud-chamber photographs, Knechtel’s candy-colored oils on linen meander from ribald line drawings of skirt-clad Elizabethan men, to washy illustrations of fruits and bells, to passages of decorative filigree, Pittmanesque silhouettes, coronas of monochrome wrestlers, monoprint impressions of flounders, trompe l‘oeil buttons, lottery logos, computer toolbox icons, anamorphic distortions, furniture, urban landscapes and wart hogs.

This phantasmagoria is the result of combining a dazzling vocabulary of precise illustrational painting techniques with an open-ended, extemporaneous narrative compositional structure. As with many paintings, the abundance of detail draws the viewer in for closer inspection, and the desire to resolve the details into a gestalt pushes the viewer back, but this characteristic undulation takes on another dimension in Knechtel’s hands, moving the viewer between nonlinear storytelling strands and an all-at-once accumulation of narrative that would be impossible in any other medium. While Knechtel (who happens to work in ad production at the Weekly) isn‘t the first to explore this lesser-known aspect of picture-making, he brings vitality and candor to it that are unsurpassed.

If you’re in Beverly Hills to see Knechtel‘s show in the next week or so, drop in to the Galerie Yoramgil next door for a look at some of the canvases by the late Peter Voulkos. Voulkos, who died on February 16 at age 78, is known primarily as a ceramic artist -- arguably the most important of the 20th century. The work he did in Los Angeles in the late ’50s turned the clay world on its head, transforming a fussy arts & crafts offshoot into the central and vital contemporary art form we know today. This shift was triggered by Voulkos‘ presence at the same mysteriously seminal 1953 summer session at Black Mountain College attended by John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham shortly before each revolutionized his own chosen medium. Something in the water. Voulkos left Helena, Montana, for L.A. and began introducing the dynamic energy and gestural aesthetics of the Abstract Expressionists into his pottery. Before he was fired and found refuge in Berkeley, Voulkos became a central figure in what was to become Otis College and a major influence on the next generation of L.A. artists including Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston and John Mason. Voulkos’ trademark ”stacked“ sculptural form is reiterated in Big Bang, one of the paintings included in the crowded group abstraction show at Yoramgil. (Examples of his classic ceramics and bronze casts are also on view at Frank Lloyd Gallery in Bergamot Station.) Though he never received much acclaim for his paintings, they are strong analogues of his clay work -- deceptively somber-hued, spontaneously expressive, and an appropriate sidebar to the range of old-white-guy painting schemes that continue to invigorate the L.A. art scene.

  • Tom Wudl, Charles Garabedian, Tom Knechtel and Peter Voulkos

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