DAN ATTOE’S CHILDHOOD formed a worldview that is equal parts serene and apocalyptic, a place where man hunts and is hunted too, and which the artist often meticulously renders in spooky, sublime naturalist settings. Attoe’s canvases are rife
with lone figures embarking on moonlit sojourns. Flashlights, tents and backpacks are cross-pollinated with woodsy ephemera and the aesthetics of a youth steeped in rock & roll. Kegs, guitars, bored strippers and barbecues all litter the scene. A bogged-down Jeep is a call to action. Insects soar like little tiny fighter jets, and birds, bears and deer run amok. With a father employed in the Forest Service, Attoe grew up running wild in the woodlands of northern Minnesota, eastern Idaho and western Washington. The wide-open spaces and foreboding vistas in his landscapes seem familiar yet, thanks to the artist’s roots, free
Attoe and Los Angeles artist JP Munro are currently showcasing their twisted imaginations in paint-on-canvas exhibits at two Chung King Road galleries.
For some time now, Attoe’s been at work on two series of paintings, one small in scale, the other large. Stopping recently at a pay phone somewhere between Los Angeles and Iowa (where the artist has recently earned his MFA), Attoe says the purpose of the small, daily paintings he began in 1997 is to fully realize and execute a single idea without mulling it over too long.
The paintings, which range in size between 5-inch square and 7-inch square, are set in patches of woods, in bars, on lakes, etc., but then head off into otherworldly directions — aliens, bugs in sensory-deprivation tanks, and such. Despite their size and one-day turnaround, the paintings feel finished, self-contained and not sketchy at all.
“One can possibly read these paintings as entries in a visual journal, each showing Dan’s inquisitive mind trying to understand more about himself and the contents of his identity,” says Chris Cook, a curator at the Sioux City Art Center, where Attoe recently showed. “No matter how sentimental or absurd the narrative may seem, they express something intrinsically real and true about the self and humanity. Each one is very complete, formally and conceptually.”
Each work in Attoe’s larger “Accretion” series of paintings (accretion means “to increase in size or amount as a result of something being added gradually . . .”) takes a month to two to complete. Says Attoe, who’s just finished No. 27: “The ‘Accretion’ series came about, in part, because I was having difficulty controlling the paint ‘wet on wet’ in my smaller paintings. With the ‘Accretions,’ I can add every day, realizing multiple ideas on a single canvas over a period of time in a way that I couldn’t with my smaller pieces.”
Cook sees the “Accretion” canvases as picking up from and expanding upon the smaller series: “They are epic tales, rich in narrative, weaving the characters and landscapes found in his ‘dailies’ into complex stories.”
Always armed with a sketchbook, Attoe jots down words and thoughts that pique his interest throughout the day, some of which subsequently find their way onto canvas and make for thought-provoking narrative through lines. “I grew up learning how to draw from rock album covers,” Attoe says. “So I guess it’s only natural that I would incorporate textual elements into my work.” Another aspect of Attoe’s youth that’s recently revealed itself in his art is his passion for sewing, which, combined with a burgeoning desire to create something sculptural, has resulted in his production of tents, which are modified in any number of ways including re-structuring, painting as well as decorating with text. These “tent sculptures” have been shown both assembled on the floor or hung directly on walls.
Over the past 12 months, Attoe’s stock with purchasers of art has risen considerably. More than likely, beyond even the art world’s rediscovered big love for painting, the crux of this rabid demand is Attoe’s potent combination of being a quick, sexy read that packs an emotional resonance.
AT THE OTHER END of the plaza, Los Angeles’ JP Munro is putting brush to linen, canvas and wood with results that are just as mind-blowing as Attoe’s work but completely tweaked in its own certifiable way. Drawing on a visual iconography so comprehensive that it reads like you’re scouring an art-history primer, Munro takes the viewer on a sensorial roller coaster that dives fearlessly into the past but somehow manages to land kicking and screaming smack dab in the now.
Sitting recently over a Dunhill and Coke in his East L.A. studio, Munro says, “Although my imagery is often taken from older sources, I don’t think anybody looks at my work and thinks that it’s old, or produced in another period.”
As a kid growing up in Venice and Manhattan Beach, Munro’s passions first took root in the sketchbook. Today, his works on paper, often executed in ink, teeter on the brink of obsessive-compulsive disorder and, much to their benefit, almost never return unscathed. Lavishly adorned foliage, trees, rocks and intricately festooned altars jockey for compositional real estate with human figures that are muscled and straining, sometimes in battle, sometimes in erotic embrace. Swords, staffs, ornate beds, pillars, lanterns share the foreground with wolves and boars, elephants and fallen generals, each one a refugee of carnage, human or otherwise. Whether he’s executing on paper or on canvas, the fruits of Munro’s rigorous meditations yield treasures that reveal themselves bit by bit as the eye dares to plunge deeper. Using elements from a multitude of eras — neoclassical, Gothic or even Elizabethan — it’s as if a sliver of a Munro piece could be unraveled like an art-damaged intestine to divulge all that much more of the artist’s precise crafting and cryptic intent.
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 Barbarella set 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