The Western Brink

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Posted January 3, 2008 in Arts & Culture

In the print edition of New American Paintings 2007, Pacific Coast Edition, from which the current show at dba 256 was culled, MOCA curator Alma Ruiz remarks, “ . . . a place to think and be productive, at a pace that suits the individual, is often more precious than being in the middle of an art scene where how the artist looks or what he or she is wearing has become a hallmark of success. After all, it is the art—not its creator—that should capture our attention.” This appealing statement reveals the conflicting impulses that govern not only the art world but the larger world as well. People of prominence and cunning fascinate us; and the sophistication, drive and hard work it takes to succeed, in the art world or elsewhere is compelling. Accordingly, the art and its creator are inseparably linked. Even so, Ruiz’s statement resonates with me, as I prefer to approach the art on my own terms, away from openings where individuals—artists, critics, movers & shaker, et al—present a public persona. The art in Selections from New American Paintings at dba256 is intimate, both in scale and tone, encouraging quiet contemplation.

Full of subtle color, Untitled (Performance Documentation) by Ana Teresa Fernández is deliciously satisfying and full of irony. This mostly soft focus interior scene of a woman straddling an ironing board bears some resemblance to soft-core pornography, yet it also turns the genre’s conventions upside down. Consider that the woman in the painting irons a garment as she gets on her grind. This is one in a series of paintings by Fernández—the only one in the series at dba256—which document the artist’s performances. Strikingly, Fernández chooses painting—a medium of subjectivity, sensuality, and metaphor—rather than photography to document her performance work. Rich with nuance, her work addresses questions about the traditional roles of women, the invisibility of domestic work, and the control of women’s sexuality. 

Patricia Hagen’s Adrift alludes to copious numbers of spores, viruses, fungi and odd cells seeking to reproduce. One spongiform sphere floats above the rest, presumably giving the painting its title, flying off to implant itself elsewhere. There’s an inherent beauty in these forms, based on organic matter. The paint is layered and dense, with lovely and unexpected color harmonies. The composition reminds me of Giorgio Morandi’s treatment of bottles and jars. Yet there is an implicit threat in this painting that does not occur in Morandi’s work; it is both seductive and ominous. 

Rift, Aaron Peterson’s elegant abstraction, combines passages of glazes and drips with gumdrop colored bubbling shapes. Jelly fish-like circlets with hanging tendrils float across the painting. It’s beautiful and inventive, evoking images of Zen painting and cloud shrouded Zen monasteries.  

Thomas Pathé’s paintings, americancheeseFrench’smustard, big Bing, and Aim toothpaste gel, playfully subvert the precedent of minimalism. These paintings feel almost as if they are machined—they have crisp, glossy surfaces, seamless continuity between painting and support, rounded corners, and monochrome color. Yet you can see the evidence of brushstrokes in the layers of translucent paint and varnish. The paintings are named for the substances that give them their color, transferring emotional association from object to painting. Pathé deftly combines cool sophistication and human emotion.

Two paintings by Jeffrey Gillette, “Toilet” and “Hospital,” are urban landscapes of complexity and fright. Gillette’s work takes aim at American economic dominance, consumer culture, and corporate imperialism. These landscapes present third world shantytowns that could be anywhere and nowhere, an agglomeration of Gillette’s experience abroad. While they are representations of human suffering, showing the deplorable conditions that afflict millions worldwide, there’s nary a human in sight in either painting. In “Toilet,” an upside-down Pepsi sign is the side of a cobbled together structure—very likely, someone’s home. A fence separates the shanties from the piles of refuse that make the slum a living garbage dump. Stains along the fence are very possibly human waste from the toilets advertised on the sides of the shanties. In the distance, the urban haze of pollution obscures our view. “Hospital,” named for the Red Cross emblazoned on a door, speaks to the proliferation of illness brought about by the difficult living conditions in Gillette’s source material. Hospital presents a closer view of the shanties, to show us an explosion of color.  

There’s more work in this show that deserves to be seen. The dba256 can be an intimate setting; if you need a little solitude, it is possible to settle down with a glass of wine in front of these paintings when nobody else is here. Or, if you want to make the scene, stop in when the place is pumping—there is a reception on January 12. Either way, Selections presents an opportunity to take in work you would normally see in Los Angeles or beyond. It’s worth the trip.

Selections From New American 2007, Pacific Coast Edition at dba256 Gallery, 256 South Main Street, Pomona, (909) 623-7600; www.dba256.com. Reception, Saturday, January 12, from 6pm–10pm; Exhibit goes through February 2, 2008


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