“Fucking Painters,” reads the headline in a typically acerbic oil-on-canvas in Steve Hurd’s new solo show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. Or rather, “sretniaP gnikcuF,” as the entire lengthy text — a blogger’s review of a San Francisco Rachel Lachowicz opening — is reproduced backward, thus rendered illegible to all but the most diligent (or mirror equipped). The chatty text goes on to flatteringly characterize Lachowicz as “a seriously smart sculptor/painter who is best known for her elegant and hilarious send-ups of art by famous male artists” while name-dropping ’90s-L.A.-art-world where-are-they-now candidates Keith Boadwee, Kim Dingle and Kim Light.

The picture — cumbersomely titled Art Schtik Blog Made Conceptual by Painting’s Reflective Nature [or] Flipped Off — includes Hurd’s backward, dripping, purple rendition of Lachowicz’s eye-shadow imitation of one of Christopher Wool’s tiresome black-and-white word paintings, a sequence of appropriation and inversion layered just enough so as to teeter on the brink of ridiculousness. Or meaninglessness. There’s a formula in espionage that says once you pass the third generation of cover stories, the truth is anyone’s guess. Who exactly is being flipped off here? Lachowicz? Wool? Comy the blogger? The ’90s-L.A. art world? Painting itself?

This fierce ambivalence is typical of Hurd’s work. “Fucking Painters” pretty much summarizes a major subtext of his oeuvre — an unquenchable skepticism toward the medium and the often blatantly corrupt mechanisms in which it functions, as well as an entirely justified irritation with those whose doubts are more easily assuaged. But in spite of his confrontational attitude and deliberately, sarcastically mannered painterliness — or perhaps because of it — Hurd is among the best and most contemporary of painters working in L.A.

Himself a ’90s-L.A.-art-world where-are-they-now candidate prior to this show, Hurd first drew attention in the early part of that decade by opening Steve Hurd Fine Art in a dumpster (complete with wine, cheese and price list) at the height of the L.A. guesthouse-gallery frenzy. His trademark Pop/Ex paintings of garish hot-off-the-news-rack Women’s Day magazine covers and Olde English 800–littered Better Homes and Gardens spreads violated the boundaries of tasteful postmodern appropriation and rubbed the art world’s nose in its virulent but unacknowledged classism. When the L.A. Times slammed his magazine paintings, he made a painting of the review and featured it in his next show. He was subsequently dismissed as a messy juvenile prankster who wasn’t playing cricket. But the incisiveness, complexity and sheer formal accomplishment of the work betrayed the fact that Hurd was paying closer attention to what he was doing — and how it connected to the world — than most of his “straight”-painting contemporaries.

Hurd’s last solo show was at Dan Bernier’s 6150 Wilshire space in 1999. After Bernier abruptly closed up shop to join the Quakers, he dumped a fairly remarkable stable of artists on the open market, leaving them with little appetite for further art-world shenanigans. Some — like Martin Kersels — found new representation and soldiered on. Others, like Patty Wickman, Tamara Fites and Hurd, decided to keep their distance — to the detriment of the L.A. art scene. At least for a while. Seven years is a long time in the fashion-driven art world, but Hurd’s new show is surprisingly au courant, recalling such trendy second-generation delinquents as Kelley Walker, Nate Lowman and Rodney McMillan (albeit with considerably more formal chops in evidence).

Some of the work is classic Hurd — the blown-up section from a bureaucratic letter of reprimand titled Should Never Be Exhibited that greets you at the gallery entrance (“Steve, I think you are aware of how I have valued your participation in our program. However, I am shocked by the unprofessional and insulting way you choose to express yourself . . .”), or the two paintings of blown-up sections of Sunday-paper craft-store fliers advertising Frames and Frames & More, which apply his faux-slapdash drizzle to what might be seen as that rarest of art-world commodities — a true barometer of our culture’s consensus about the importance of art.

Hurd’s first entirely abstract paintings make up another series of works, collectively titled “Outburst.” Fraught with contradictory impulses, these gorgeous pieces both mock and successfully resuscitate heroic gestural abstraction by taking small unconscious scribblings, passing them through a series of digital states (including pixellating them into patently unexpressive networks of rectangles) and reproducing them with the scale and painterly bravado demanded by their genre. Yet, rather than coming off as some outdated art-historical one-liner, these works bristle with energy. My first guess was that they were manipulated details from videotaped explosions in Iraq, which isn’t that far off — Hurd explained that the scribbles were made “while I was agitated by all the bad news that’s been going around.”

Hurd’s incorporation of contemporary digital visual culture in his painting practice is among the most convincing I’ve come across, and that alone would be enough to make this show a standout. But he has taken it to another level altogether by expanding his field of discontent and dovetailing his deliberately awkward and redemptive digitalia with righteous dismay over the current political landscape. Using screen-res images gleaned from the Internet, Hurd has produced two new groups of paintings that subvert the tightly controlled image politics of the Bush administration.

The “Mouthpiece” works render G.W.’s fatherly sneer in grotesque, isolated close-up (some wealthy dentist should snap these up to frighten children in his waiting room!). The “R.I.P.” series subjects the government-censored images of flag-draped coffins to the same layered digital/organic treatment, resulting in a suite of visually innovative, politically engaged paintings that are simultaneously elegiac and ironic, topical and formal, poppy and angry.

After September 11, people were falling over themselves declaring “the death of irony.” What a crock. Having witnessed the disgraceful, exploitative transformation of the real suffering of that event into a marketing strategy for global military-industrial domination, a whole generation of young artists have now been left groping for a formula to break through the newspeak-saturated symbolic playing field, with irony the only trustworthy backdoor access to any semblance of sincerity. They could do a lot worse than to look to Steve Hurd as a role model.

STEVE HURD | Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station B4, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through Aug. 26 | (310) 828-8488

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