Curating isn’t always as easy as it looks. It’s rare to find a group of concurrent solo projects that genuinely complement one another — just because two artists happen to use images of trees or refer to cartography or have Photoshop doesn’t necessarily mean their work will have anything more than a superficial verbal resemblance. Museums regularly stumble over this sort of literalism in spite of their long-term scheduling and art-historical resources, and commercial gallerists — with their relatively fast turnover and propensity for attention-grabbing sound bites — are particularly prone.
Which is why, when a triple whammy like the current lineup at Patrick Painter crops up, it’s worth looking a little deeper. On the surface, Jim Shaw, Peter Saul and Glenn Brown seem like an almost arbitrary selection from the gallery’s stable — artists from three distinct generations, two of whom work at opposite ends of the U.S., while the third hails from another continent altogether. L.A.-based Shaw works promiscuously across the media spectrum, from highly rendered figuration to abstract video, while recently ensconced Manhattanite Saul is strictly a painter’s painter. Londoner Brown is also an old-school painter as far as materials go, but his near-obsessive appropriationism (which landed him in legal hot water with one of the science-fiction illustrators from whom he cribbed) lies at the opposite pole from Saul’s seething pop expressionism.
Maybe appropriation is the key? “That’s not really a factor with Peter,” says Shaw, whose own works are frequently chock-a-block with obscure pop-culture references, “and I’m not exactly an appropriator in the way that Jeff Koons or Glenn are. I do occasionally utilize something that somebody else did. But not in a direct way where the appropriation is important to it. For example, I’m thinking of taking pictures of children similar to the ones in these Christian calendars — often I’ll set up a photograph that looks similar to the preexisting things that inspire me, which is a somewhat different action from Glenn.”
Brown was one of the handful of interesting painters (actually, the only other one I can think of is minotaur man Richard Patterson) who rose to fame out of Goldsmiths College as part of the whole mid-’90s YBA/Saatchi juggernaut, alongside more headline-grabbing (but considerably less interesting) postconceptualists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Occupying Painter’s café-adjacent east gallery, Brown perversely offers up a single stunning sculpture (Wooden Heart, 2008) and an inspired suite of Layered Portraits etchings but no actual canvases — surprising since the language of painting remains the artist’s central concern.
Apart from the obvious populist appeal of many of his conspicuously labor-intensive canvases — particularly his large photorealist depictions of luminous sci-fi and Salvador Dali landscapes and mimicry of old master portraiture — Brown has managed to turn the unfashionability of his own remarkable technique on its head. Wooing postmodernists and hardcore paint-fetishists alike, Brown’s meticulous translations — of quintessential mid-20th-century German/British figurative expressionist Frank Auerbach’s slathered-on brush strokes into both superflat trompe l’oeil simulacra and three-dimensional actual head-size agglomerations of paint — transcend the ironic imperative of his kitsch reclamations to create something startling and new. Sometimes two wrongs do make a right.
Left, on the other hand, is never right. Around 1967, when Peter Saul’s paintings veered off course — from the tastefully off-kilter, mildly censorious fridgefuls of consumer commodities that had landed him in the upper ranks of Pop Artists and into confrontationally lurid, violently and sexually explicit condemnations of the American government’s foreign and domestic policies of the genocidal variety — so did his career. Currently in the midst of one of his periodic “rediscoveries” (now that the market has crashed and the government is our friend again, we’ll see how long this one lasts), Saul remains firmly rooted in his quirky oppositional mode.
His Five NewPictures, on view at Painter’s main Bergamot Station gallery, while never reaching the level of delirious antagonism attained by Bush at Abu Ghraib (2006 — featured at his recent Orange County Museum retrospective), are very nearly equally repugnant to anyone of refined sensibilities or delicate constitution, mocking the unfortunate middlemen of the recent mortgage crisis in Real Estate Agent Going Crazy (2008) and continuing to bend the noble pigments of painterly tradition to simulate the vulgar practices of airbrush painting, Day-Glo color and oozing, grotesque cartoonery.
These last three formalist affronts are Saul’s most obvious link to Jim Shaw, whose own affinity for psychedelic posters, Rat Fink, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Basil Wolverton’s MAD grotesqueries has probably delayed his recognition as a major contemporary American art-historical figure — at least in the USA. In Europe, where they’ve always known comics are art, Shaw’s profile has exploded, strewing the Continental artscape with castoff globs of American pop culture, fringe religious iconography and the sediment of his obsessively detailed dreams.
Left Behind — Shaw’s last show at Painter — consisted of a pair of enormous corrected ready-mades, generic theatrical-backdrop landscapes repurposed with the addition of zombie yuppies and cadmium-red spider webs, one of which opened onto a kitsch/surrealist sculptural installation of some kind of crystalline dwarf nativity scene. At Painter’s facility on Melrose and La Brea, the new suite of monochrome works on paper takes it down several notches — elegantly hybridizing authentic and faux-gestural scribblings, with occasional interruptions from painstakingly rendered (Groaniest Show Title of the Year: “Extraordinary Renditions”) figurative fragments. These deliberately focused works comprise Shaw’s most coherent singular statement since — well, ever. Having prevailed with his insistent stylistic multiplicity, Shaw finally applies his creative signature to the medium of the art show itself, producing a uniform body of visually handsome, conceptually rigorous, decorator-friendly artifacts.
Shaw’s political slant is more oblique than Saul’s — he opts to fine-tune his mimetic skills so that social-control structures (like religions or the art world) are rendered transparent and (hopefully) accountable by a slight shift to the side. The same could be said for Brown, though his area of subversion is restricted to the social legacy of formalist Modernism — the canon of Fashion Do’s and Don’ts that oppress the art world’s citizens while preserving their status as special people. Come to think of it, apart from the “slight” bit, Saul’s work qualifies as well. Come to think of it again, Saul’s extremism is limited to the narrative content of his work: His unconventional urban-luminous cartoon pointillism is a gentle correction in comparison, and all the more effective for it.
This relentless nudging open of the parameters of prejudice in the human visual realm is the common thread that connects Saul, Shaw and Brown — though the concept is too corny for words. As Modernism invoked the power of creative novelty over formulaic craftsmanship, so these artists — and so many others — invoke creative craftsmanship over formulaic novelty, not because it corrects the balance of the art-historical moment, and not because it deprivileges the intellectual faculty in favor of the other, disparaged senses — but simply because it’s the wrong thing to do.
PETER SAUL: FIVE NEW PICTURES and GLENN BROWN: EDITIONS AND A UNIQUE SCULPTURE | Patrick Painter Inc., Bergamot Station B-2 and A-8 respectively, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | (310) 264-5988
JIM SHAW: EXTRAORDINARY RENDITIONS | Patrick Painter Inc., Melrose Gallery, 7025 Melrose Ave., L.A. | (323) 934-5986 | www.patrickpainter.com