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That being said, the aesthetic of any single work is never a mixed bag. “Drawing on a variety of older styles was a way for me to further define myself,” says Munro. “I wasn’t at all interested in becoming relegated or limited to a certain aesthetic, but at the same time, the accumulation of aesthetic elements [on a single piece] can be a dangerous thing because then the paintings become too much about that.
“A while back I did this piece with Napoleon in it, and somebody looked at it and told me that I should put George Washington in it too, but that’s just not where I’m headed. I’m interested in keeping the aesthetics a little more pure on any given piece, which then enables me to be the one who messes with it without taking away from the viewer’s formal appreciation of the work.”
After getting his MFA at Art Center in Pasadena in 2001, Munro had his first solo show at China Art Objects in the summer of 2002 and then followed that with a show at London’s tony Sadie Coles Gallery later that year.
“Like John Currin, JP is referencing art history but not copying it as an exercise in technique,” says Sadie Coles. “The paintings, to my European eye, heighten the source material in quite a cinematic way — make it more supercharged and filmic, like Napoleon on the Barbarellaset or something. And it doesn’t revere the symbolism of the imagery — JP can use Greek or Christian mythology without it feeling like a Bible meeting.”
In Munro’s China Art Objects show, the centerpiece is a massive 10-by-12-foot, three-panel oil called Torture Garden, inspired by a 19th-century French novel of the same name written by Octave Mirbeau about a garden in China where torture is admired as a kind of high art. Torture Garden is a visual feast — indicative of ambition that few Munro’s age would dare show. The painting is densely packed with Chinese vegetation and architectural references as well as with a plethora of haunting and sensual figures. A body dangling upside down from a rope just off the center of the composition slyly emerges as the focal point of the entire piece. Like all of Munro’s work, regardless of subject matter, Torture Garden exudes a kind of subversive sensuality.
“People often look at my work and see something sexual or pornographic even though that isn’t necessarily my conscious intent when I’m choosing imagery,” says the somewhat bemused artist.
In a world seen through the filter of JP Munro, the old is reconstituted into something very timely — into an unearthing of the profane which, newly manifested, announces the sacred.
DAN ATTOE: SOME OF THE BEST THINGS I KNOW | Peres Projects, 969 Chung King Road, Chinatown | Through June 19
JP MUNRO: TORTURE GARDEN | China Art Objects, 933 Chung King Road, Chinatown | Opens Saturday, May 29, and runs through July 10