The streets were dark with something more than night.
We tell stories in order to live.
The City of Stars, sometimes known as “LaLaLand” — our often misunderstood Los Angeles — has always had a dark side. Too often it’s a place where dreams come to die. On the bright side, it is a place of endless sunlight and personal reinvention. Here, reality and fiction, truth and lies intertwine as everyone waits for The Big One to rearrange the furniture. Home to the literary work of Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, and Nathaniel West, it is a tantalizing contradiction of place. Narrative Painting In Los Angeles brings together thirteen figurative painters who interrogate the history of art, the nature of identity, sexual politics and social justice through the lens of Southern California with enormous skill and elan.
Of all the outstanding works in this engaging show, Carl Dobsky’s Birds of Paradise, 2016, oil on linen, 60 x 84”, most clearly has the dark side of life in LA as its theme. Here, a wild pool party is filled with white, privileged partygoers who carouse, drink (there is literally a Dionysian male figure seen head thrown back, about to ingest grapes), take selfies, network, make deals, smoke and overeat with wild abandon and glee while LA burns brightly in the hills behind them. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, too, and the rash of the destructive fires in recent history make this image metaphorically, historically and sadly accurate. Like film noir, this cynical image is dream-like, menacing and pessimistic while also being strangely humorous. Component sections — the smiling protagonists and the still life with wine and shrimp — recall Dutch portrait paintings of Frans Hals and 17th century Dutch still life traditions.
Laura Krifka’s forceful painting, entitled Grab Bag, 2016, oil on canvas, 40” x 30,” is a wonderfully perplexing image of a nude woman covering her genitals with her hands, in a harsh flash bulb kind of light. Her vintage hairstyle and the sleazy curtain behind her, plus the strange color sensibility (it almost appears like a colorized black and white film still) make it seem like a still photo from the 1930’s to 40’s. It’s almost like she is on display in a Hollywood casting couch kind of way. Countering that initial impression, however, is her belligerent gaze (peering down at the viewer) and the protective placement of her hand, which can be seen as a rebuke to Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” comment. Try that with this tough cookie and you are going to pull back a bloody stump. The eerie color and sinister surroundings and the mix of the nostalgic and contemporary make the threads of this “story” difficult to unwind, (why is she naked? where is she?), yet the piece remains darkly cinematic and truly compelling.
“Art about Art,” borrowing directly from art history, is the secondary theme and/or structure of many of these allegorical works. The most entertaining tour de force is the wildly talented F. Scott Hess’s large-scale hallucinogenic whirling dervish of a painting entitled The Dream Of Art History, 2018, oil on canvas, 54 x 98 inches. Clearly nightmarish, it is based on a real dream, where Hess saw the history of art emerging from a toilet (the best part of the dream) like a “giant mummy-worm full of paintings and sculpture …then I was struck by a Cadillac El Dorado, blown into a ditch and as I lay dying, my last words were, ‘Thank God I’m not in the History of Art anymore!’” In the dream, Hess is dealing with the disappearance of his kind of figurative painting from prominence when Abstract-Expressionism, Minimalism and Op Art all the way up to Zombie Formalism delivered a knock out blow for figurative artists. In the painting Hess stands in the belly of the beast, quaintly painting on an easel, as three Maxfield Parrish pink and blue hued nudes fly through the air looking to land. One of the great pleasures of this personal and spectacular painting is noting the accuracy of hundreds of iconic paintings, curled and faded, though still entirely recognizable. Death is coming his way, but he is undaunted, furiously painting away.
Death figures into both of Steve Galloway’s mystifying paintings. In The Offering, 2019, oil on polyester canvas, 68 x 84” and in the smaller Trance Dance, 2017, oil on canvas, 30 x 24”, a shamanistic figure with what appears to be an anthill with light fixtures (inspiration?) attached to his head, dances around chanting incantations presumably for the invisible artist who is staring at a dauntingly blank canvas. Death, a frequent character in these images, plays the violin as he lies in wait for the absent artist. A volcano is ominously spewing dark smoke in the background, waiting to explode — perhaps a metaphor for the frustrated artist. In the larger painting, aptly titled The Offering, Death is jauntily cruising in a car, merely circling, like a vulture, as the same shaman dances like a fiddler on the roof. There is an abyss, called Devil’s Canyon, in the background of this haunted landscape; perhaps insinuating that the artist would make a deal with the devil to conjure up the next painting. The neatly painted landscape, though clearly a constructed reality, harkens back to Grant Wood’s landscape paintings with its neat bushes and rolling hills.
The women in this exhibit almost always paint interiors, usually populated by one or more women. D.J. Hall’s small, pastel-hued paintings are intimate recreations of three of German Expressionist Max Pechstein’s paintings from 1908-10. In Barbara, Venice, 2018, oil on panel, 20 x 16”, Hall recreates Madchen Mit Buch (Girl with book), 1908/04. The composition is identical, except Hall has a woman reading a newspaper (instead of a book,) sitting on a couch in her version. This is a slyly political painting, with an image from the TV version of the Handmaiden’s Tale, and a headline about Trump in the newspaper. Three small reproductions of the Pechstein paintings are on the wall of the gallery accompanied by text explaining the derivation of this “art about art” series. The edgy drawing, the bold use of black and the jarring but powerful saturated color of the originals, somehow makes Hall’s three small, softly tinted work look innocuous by comparison.
Ja’Rie Gray’s three paintings address beauty and skin color specifically. The cultural assumption that lighter skin is preferable permeates the black community as well as the white community. In her brightly colored A Conversation with the Three of Me, 2015, oil on canvas, 48 x 48”, Gray makes her Id, Ego and Superego into three distinct bodies, each holding forth on this important inner monologue. Her painting style of hard-edged lines abutting flat and unmodulated geometric shapes, the mixing of two and three-dimensional space, and her sparkling color palette make her sensibility unique in this group.
Another outlier is the autodidact Lola Gil, who like Gray explores layers of the self in the introspective The Memory Room, 2017, oil on canvas, 48 x 56, and The True Self, 2017, oil on panel, 30 x12.” Her mysterious works are reminiscent of Leonora Carrington’s Surrealistic paintings in the tight, smooth paint application and odd juxtapositions. In a hermetically sealed, curtains closed almost claustrophobic room, the artist rides piggyback on the androgynous/and or male version of herself. Cameras play an important psychological part here…as they are in the hands of both figures, and a photographic self-portrait floats to the ground. Ironically, a camera is the subject of a painting hung on the wall in the background. The camera, which has only one eye, is often thought to be more truthful than our own two eyes. A mystical female dressed in a beehive cocoon made of curled hair (perhaps a reference to the Catholic hair shirt worn by penitents?) is by the door along with heads on shelves, like compartments for different aspects of self. It does remind one of the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby,” who: “waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps by the jar by the door…” There is a complex personal narrative present here about the nature of reality and constructed personhood that rewards the patient viewer.
Dan McCleary’s engrossing picture, Trouble, 2019, oil on canvas, 59 x 71, is a painting where, according to the curatorial wall text, “nothing” is going on (sort of like a visual of Seinfeld without the humor). Three people sit next to each other, creating an awkward tension, much like one feels while in an elevator with strangers. The sense of isolation and the stolid quality of the sitters evokes Edward Hopper, though the curatorial wall text mentions McCleary’s affinity for the 15th century Italian painter of everyday life, Piero della Francesca.
Sandow Birk does contemporary remakes of 16th century Dutch painter Pieter Breugal the Elder’s landscape paintings, to reflect current situations such as climate change, tax legislation and voting concerns. With The Mid-Term Elections (Skate Park), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 35 x 45”, Birk sets the scene in a public square where youth skate while the polling station in the back stands empty. This is an indictment of the public in America who prefer to play than to vote.
John Valadez continues to paint his beloved and festive East Los Angeles community and their devotion to tricked out, fantastical cars in his characteristic style in Piernas Anime, 2017, oil on canvas, 108 x 70.” A large-scale James Doolin painting from the mid 1980’s coolly captures LA’s freeways in dazzling color. Devoid of people, the dazzling LA sunshine is the main character here in the epic Highway Patrol, 1986, oil on canvas, 72 x 118
Shawn Michael Warren, with Abbot’s Waterway, 2019, oil on canvas, 82 x 62”, presents a realistically painted image of African-American workers who created the Venice canals and then due to racist policies were never able to live there. Historically, the image has its antecedents in the American and Mexican social and political murals of the 1930’s; however, visually without the wall text, the viewers might not understand the all-important backstory.
Milo Reice’s large scale, mixed–media and oil painting entitled (APentimento): A Pas De Deux of Love for All, 2017, 82 x 90.5,” is a paean to the LGBTQ community. It features all kinds of loving couples, painted in a loose, almost expressionistic style, with text on post it like irregular shaped paper, declaring love for all written in crayon, pencil maybe even lipstick. A white sheet of paper with a skirt drawn on it is affixed to the painted surface, giving the work a casual appearance. It’s as though the image is still in the process of “becoming” and this stream-of–consciousness approach is in direct opposition to the highly crafted, realistic and surrealistic images of the other paintings. It is also the only mixed-media piece with an altered surface on display here (on the bottom almost invisible is a cut-out shelf with a heart in it.)
Literature, movies, and even poetry are invoked here as inspiration for the content of these diverse but substantial paintings. Like poetry, which distills emotions down to an essence, these thirteen painters pique our curiosity, prod our conscience, stimulate our minds, provoke uneasiness and evoke magic in their individual quest for meaning in an ever increasingly unstable and confusing world.
Featured Image: Detail of Sandow Birk’s The Passing of the Tax Bill, Gloomy Day (2018)