Courtesy of Dan Bernier GalleryEven an avowed believer in the potential of contemporary painting like myself gets a little tired of defending the beleaguered medium. Luckily, though, the sheer abundance of good painting going on out there speaks more eloquently than any critic about the vitality of the current scene. Three new shows provide a glimpse of the variety of viable approaches available to painters today, and indicate a field as wide-open as anytime in history.
One of the most fearless and original painters working in L.A. is Nancy Evans, and with her exhibition "Mix It Up" at Post downtown, her continuously evolving project advances another step (or even a leap). Only four works fill a small gallery space, but what they lack in quantity is made up for by the possibilities they suggest. Especially promising is Big Screen (1998-99), a large painting on burlap that has been affixed to a concave, square onetime TV screen. The painting follows the smooth curves of its high-tech, injection-molded backing as it subtly wraps a funky grid of kid's-room colors around the viewer's field of vision. Interspersed throughout this wonky grid are airbrushed porcelain objects that plug into a series of holes on the surface of the work. A few porcelain extras lie on a wooden ledge of the giant easel that holds up the painting, suggesting the possibility at reorder Big Screen's compositional structure.
A similar interactivity is proffered in two other works, albeit with a change in format. Arrangement Games: Tray 1 and Arrangement Games: Tray 2 (both 1999) are made up of what appear to be prosaic oak hostess trays, held up on collapsible scissor-legged stands. The interiors of each tray have been lined with burlap and painted with colors and geometric patterns that recall 1930s-era provincial modernist abstractions. Arranged atop each ground are strange painted objects, some recognizable as fruit, leaves and vegetables, others more ominously suggestive of animal bones. Part game pieces for an as-yet-undiscovered parlor game, part painterly figures to their colorful grounds and part shamanistic tools for a suburban medium, Evans' objects straddle kitsch and the "higher" calling of progressive art making.
Pushing this dichotomy even further is the "painting" Sweet Birds of Youth (1999), which would look just about right hanging above the couch in a suburban ranch house still inhabited by its original owners, even though its Better Homes and Gardens craftsiness looks a bit out of place amidst the pure white confines of the gallery space. Once beyond the dingy brown tones of the raw burlap that hangs like a sheet from the wall and the autumnal tones of the molded Plexiglas birds that congregate on its surface, one notices the sly reversal of painterly expectations Evans has orchestrated. In conventional pictorial logic, figures usually lie or float against a stable, sturdy ground that holds the composition together. Here, the burlap sags and slinks and would puddle on the floor if it weren't invisibly held to the wall by the helpful sparrows, industrious hummingbirds and stalwart vulture, making for a truly dynamic and entertaining viewing experience.
At Post's Wilshire space, the artist formally known as Yek takes the glitzy route to tantalizing the eyes, relying on the emotive and spatial potential of searing colors to grab the viewer's attention. Like Evans in Big Screen, Yek favors a concave square format for his paintings, which works especially well in sucking one into his chromatic mists. Utilizing such commercial-arts staples as the airbrush, the color fade and the car-culture pinstripe, Yek manufactures luminous atmospheric effects that mesmerize with a paradoxical Zen glamour. Typically, the artist will fade a range of colors vertically up the face of his bowllike paintings (which seem to hug the contours of the eyeballs) and then make the field drop away from the surface by adding hot fluorescent pinstripes to stake out a near ground. As a technique, it goes back at least to Rome, and Yek's works cuddle up to progenitors as varied as Jules Olitski, Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin and Ed Ruscha, yet he somehow avoids blatant derivation and makes something of bona fide contemporaneity.
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Ole Devil (1999) verges on the limited pleasures of the monochrome, but the subtle gradation of hot pink to orange sherbet from bottom to top pulses with tangible supernatural energy. The Baroque flourishes at the ends of the streaking green pinstripes on either side of the field look like the markings of talented skywriters toying with the light at the end of the day. Rio Alive (1998) tackles the dawn's early light with a tropical twist, blending a supersaturated canary yellow at the bottom of the painting up to an emerald green at its uppermost edge to form a Brazilian soccer fan's ideal sunrise. Rocketing strands in contrasting orange-pink shoot through the sky and erupt in the cool, green ozone with fireworkslike arabesques. Sometimes reminiscent of the fantastical nature paintings of Agnes Pelton, who also found inspiration in the desert, Yek comes across as a romanticist of the neon era.
One would be hard-pressed to label Steve Hurd a romanticist, what with his acidic humor and satirical painting style; even when he sidles up to the most romantic of all subject matter, as he does in his current show at Dan Bernier, he takes every opportunity to subvert easy notions of beauty and comfort. Titled "Paintings From the Aesthetic Recovery Project," the exhibition can be seen both as an archaeological recovery of aesthetics of yore and as part of a 12-step program to regain aesthetic integrity. Hurd is definitely a chronic anti-aesthetician, and even when he tries to bring obviously beautiful subject matter into his paintings, he just can't help but revert back to his habit of messing it up with a drippy painting method and a degrading irony. Half the show is made up of bright, colorful rose paintings -- not observed en plein air, but stolen from a catalog of commercial hybrid flowers. Each bears a label in blocky white text, and the labels, or christened names, of the roses are springboards for snickering exercises in defamation. With names like Pure Poetry, Artistry, Honor and Golden Showers, the roses, like goody-two-shoes kids in school, are ridiculed by being badly painted in some cases, subjected to an intimated heat wave that melts the flowers into runny puddles of paint, or made to choke on an overdose of saccharine colors. Occasionally, in the cycle from beauty to horror, the paintings catch up with beauty again, as in Pure Poetry (1998), where a fleshy, satisfying abstraction reminiscent of De Kooning emerges from the wall-to-wall excesses of pink roses.
Matched with the rose paintings are grisaille works derived from the pages of a '70s-era home-decorating book whose color has been all but leached out. As with the rose paintings, Hurd essentially re-presents the pages as he found them, but a close look deciphers hilarious double-entendres in the captioning texts. Sometimes the jokes come from dated portrayals of the requirements of boys' and girls' rooms, other times they derive from the florid language of the decorator -- "Tissue-paper leaves and flowers fill the wall-hung lavabo and blossom on the pegboard lollipop tree." In all of these works, Hurd chases down subject matter considered taboo in serious art -- namely the pretty and the decorative -- and roughs it up to make it presentable to us jaded and cynical late-20th-century viewers. Enjoyment of his work for its aesthetic qualities is indeed possible; it just comes with a strong shot of self-recognition that the conceptual, the ironic and the sardonic form a large part of our notion of aesthetics at this stage in the history of art.
NANCY EVANS At POST 1904 E. Seventh Place, downtown Through February 6 YEK At POST 6130 Wilshire Blvd. Through February 6 STEVE HURD At DAN BERNIER 6150 Wilshire Blvd. Through February 6