In his last couple of shows, L.A.-based painter Steve Canaday managed to stir up a fair bit of controversy with his cheerfully explicit portraits of ex-girlfriends sporting grotesquely enlarged secondary (and occasionally primary) sexual characteristics, and his even more aggressively adolescent depictions of drug-fueled hot-rod chickie-runs at the Heart of Darkness set in the postindustrial ruins of the artist’s hometown, Detroit. But underlying this deliberately provocative lowbrow narrative content (not to mention outré art-historical references and painting techniques that alienated more than one of my painterly acquaintances), Canaday was deploying a rock-solid compositional sophistication and material engagement that belied his faux-primitivism.

Recent fans of Canaday’s prankish teen-noir pictorialism will probably be utterly baffled by his latest oeuvre — collectively on view as Black, Blacker, Blackest, the inaugural show at Parker Jones. Jones, the latter-day gallery director of Black Dragon Society, has reconfigured that defunct Chinatown mainstay’s young, largely UCLA-connected stable in the former digs of David Kordansky — just in time for the imminent art-market resurgence! Canaday — whose American Id-isms (like those of fellow Angelo-Michiganders Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley) are better appreciated in Europe than locally — would be a pretty ballsy choice for a first show even if he had stuck to a greatest-hits sampling of babes and Rat Finks. Instead, Canaday has pulled the comfy pictorial rug out from his late-Modernist structuralism by presenting an exhibit of only slightly impure abstractions.

Those familiar with Canaday’s work from back around the turn of the millennium will recognize this move as a periodic return to the abstract roots from which his lurid imagery blossomed — a consolidation of the lessons gleaned from immersion in skanky figuration. And a rich, black volcanic compost it yields indeed. Consisting of a half-dozen medium-size shaped canvases embossed with coarse monochromatic black-on-black grids of rectangles in high relief, like buttons on a metastasizing cell phone, the tread of a shredded monster truck tire, or an aerial map of a charred cityscape — Canaday’s Black, Blacker, Blackest suite possesses a physicality and gravitas only hinted at in his earlier work.

Highlighted with satellite night vision–green patches and halos, constructed in vague resemblance to automotive fragments, and occasionally sprouting an antenna from a top stretcher bar, these cartoonishly postindustrial geometric abstractions flirt with figuration just enough to spoil their reading as doctrinaire Minimalism, while retaining their prerogative as remarkably decorative objects. Call it Late American Imperial — sumptuous and unique material commodities that seem to embody a stripped-down symbolic divination of their host culture’s impending demise — the last feeble flickering of the fluorescent-green ghost before it becomes all machine, the last sputtering transmission from VALIS to penetrate the Black Iron Prison.

But maybe I’m projecting. There’s a strong temptation to look for signs and portents of impending collapse in the artifacts of a doomed culture, even in the midst of seemingly perpetual supremacy. Of course, this works even better in hindsight, which accounts to some extent for the ongoing public fascination with the excavated detritus of the city of Pompeii. While undeniably constituting one of the most remarkable archeological treasure troves ever dug up, the flash-fried ruins of this first-century Neapolitan resort town have elicited a perverse and subjective fascination from the modern Western imagination since their rediscovery in the mid-18th century.

As a story, it’s pretty much got everything — sex, death, explosions, pathos and a surprising amount of humor. I get a sense that the city’s excavation created a McCluhanesque media shift in our perception and processing of (at least) antiquities — after all, Pompeii and its neighboring cities constitute a sort of holographic virtual-reality snapshot of a 2000-year-old culture — a century before photography began to condition our perceptual models to accommodate such frozen sensory data. This sudden holistic shift had a profound effect on archeology, art history and museology, but also sent shock waves through our species’ common cultural and sensory software.

It’s small wonder that each successive dominant art form — from oil paintings, romantic novels and theatrical panoramas to cinema and, uh, video games (“Help an archeology student named Alabama Smith find the Amulet of the Ages, an artifact that allows its bearer to travel through time, and then step into the role of Anastasia as she races to save Alabama from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius!”) — has adapted Pompeii’s ready-made mythological resonance to its own ends and means.

Along the way, various auteurs have buried the actuality of the preserved artifacts, civic infrastructure and human and animal forms in successive layers of allegorical fallout — explicit or implied declarations of the meaning of Pompeii’s sudden devastation that range from the righteous anti-idolatry wrath of a Judeo-Christian deity to Charles Pellegrino’s recent take on Vesuvius’ eruption as proto-Gospel skeleton key for the understanding of 9/11. Throughout most of them runs the theme of the Empire, bloated with narcissistic materialism and verging on extinction, with Pompeii’s extinction as a shorthand premonition of Things to Come. Which is all well and good, except that it tends to cast artworks and corpses as set props for a morally allegorical theatrical spectacle.

The medium of museum display has had a long and intimate relationship with the remains of Pompeii, getting serious in 1819, when the King of Naples removed all the explicitly sexual artworks from his National Museum and hid them in a closet — skewing the historical record toward a false Victorian repressiveness that became an unspoken secret in the Humanities for the next century and a half, and the basis of a perversely chaste Hollywood conception of Roman life. “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” — the tasteful and scholarly array of Pompeii-bilia currently gracing LACMA’s “Art of the Americas Building” — attempts an end run around some of this baggage, by eschewing the typical “slice of life” didactics, and focusing instead on the opulent lifestyles of the wealthy Romans whose summer villas ringed the Bay of Naples. (Why this exhibit wasn’t mounted at the Getty Villa — modeled on one of the very estates excavated from Pompeii’s sister city, Herculaneum — is a mystery unto itself, though they are offering a twofer ticket deal.)

This shift of emphasis away from sensationalism — even to the point of incorporating a reflective postmodern section of modern works generated by the initial feeding frenzy (leading directly into the gift shop!) — effectively foregrounds the actual objects, many of which are spectacular enough to hold their own. The enormous Wall Painting From the House of the Golden Bracelet — with its visual inventory of garden plants and birds, its strangely incorporated depictions of other figurative artwork, and random unrestored negative spaces — is one of the best paintings I’ve seen in recent memory. Every few feet, there’s something to stop you in your tracks — like the Skyphos With Inlaid Egyptian Figures, a large wine cup carved from a single block of volcanic obsidian glass, decorated with intricately constructed mosaics of coral, lapis lazuli and gold; the exquisite-in-any-era ribbon glass Bowl; the surreal-by-any-standard Fountain figure Silenos Riding a Wineskin. …

Yet in spite of the fact that there’s none of King Francis’ hoard of erotica or any of those vacuum-formed plaster casts of dead dogs and children, nobody would be shelling out $25 to look at the pretty baubles if the entire production wasn’t dripping with blood and fire — allegorically, anyway. Taken as the latest attempt to translate the gestalt of the rediscovered ruins of Pompeii into the language of museology, “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” — whether intentionally or by sheer coincidence — has the distinct tenor of memento mori: a reminder of impending mortality in the midst, or even the form of self-congratulatory opulence. Call it Late American Imperial.

Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., through October 4.

Steve Canaday: Black, Blacker, Blackest: Parker Jones, 510 Bernard St., L.A., through May 23.

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