Dan Addington

at Contemporary Art Workshop, through April 1

Jason La Mantia

at Gallery 1756, through April 5

By Fred Camper

There’s something decidedly 19th-century about Dan Addington’s 23 paintings, mostly on panel, at the Contemporary Art Workshop, despite their shapes floating in disembodied space and the occasional collaged fragment of a photocopy. Not only does the mood evoke the nostalgia of Caspar David Friedrich paintings of ruins, the images seem to express an unfashionably straightforward belief in the symbolic power of objects.

The large dark brown Celtic cross at the center of Muireadach’s Cross floats in a luminous field of smeary yellow green and appears to be dripping pigment in a kind of painterly blur that recalls Jasper Johns. Like most of Addington’s paintings, this one is covered with a thick layer of beeswax, which adds a peculiar sense of age and ambiguous depth; this complexity, together with a heavy black frame, gives the dark, solid cross an odd power that belies the modernist artifice of the dripping paint. In Congregate Celtic crosses of various sizes float against an abstract ground that varies from pale blue green to red; the crosses seem adrift in space, now confined to a flat surface, then becoming objects in space again, seeming almost animated, alive.

Addington, 33, a Chicagoan, cites painterly influences from Jim Dine and Larry Rivers to Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but this series has its roots in a trip to Ireland last year, when he spent two weeks driving around looking at ruins. “In continental Europe,” he told me, “the Gothic cathedrals are still being used, still beautiful, still kept up. In Ireland you go into cathedrals and you’re still outdoors, because they’re ruins. Or you can be out in the middle of nowhere and come up over a hill and there’s this 12-meter-high sandstone cross with intricate carvings. It’s still a mystery as to what their purpose was. But I’ve read a lot about Celtic Christianity: it had more of a connection to the land and to earlier Celtic mythology. Celtic Christianity has this real ecological theme. Saint Patrick’s writings always make reference to the land–the rocks cry out, the sky extols God’s majesty.” At the same time, he says, the ruins exuded “a kind of melancholy. There’s a sense of sadness in the landscape too–it’s drizzly or raining, and you hear the wind.”

Addington also looked at illuminated manuscripts–he mentions the most famous, the Book of Kells–and though he says he didn’t want to put them directly into his paintings, they still seem to be an influence. Plant shapes at the edges recall the ornate borders of manuscript pages, and pale horizontal lines near the center suggest rows of text. Shamrock shapes, which appear as often as crosses, recall the way plant forms often adorn the middle of the text as well. In Beyond the Pale, one of five large paintings here, these and other elements converge to form a shifting dreamworld of belief and loss. A thin, dark band at the bottom depicts a silhouetted landscape of trees and a tower, giving the picture a literal ground, but most of it is a free-floating field of changing colors and somewhat defined shapes. Crosses, shamrocks, a pinkish set of elongated hands whose position suggests prayer or pleading, and a dimly outlined double serpent are defined by pale lines and colors always on the point of being reabsorbed into the amorphous surface. Though these shapes have an iconic power, it’s qualified by abstraction, which creates a distance between the viewer and the beliefs the symbols evoke. The decayed-looking surface also adds distance, as if these forms were being reintegrated with nature.

A group of seven smaller, more realistic landscapes, oils without a wax covering, reveal an even greater debt to 19th-century romanticism. In Drumcliff a carved Celtic cross towers over an abstracted landscape whose horizon shows the pale orange of dawn or dusk; in Ceiran’s Garden we see a field of crosses against a dark sky. In both paintings the crosses have some distinct details but are hardly photographic, and together their relative lack of detail and the dominating indistinct sky suggest that the painter’s nostalgia for faith is as much a subject as faith itself. Addington, a Christian, has managed to create paintings whose mournfulness suggests both belief and loss: belief in a world in which symbols still have meaning, and acknowledgment that the withering away of tradition has distanced us from their power.

Traditional beliefs aren’t at issue in Jason La Mantia’s 18 found-object sculptures at Gallery 1756. These menacing multicolored figures seem to have come directly from monster movies–or, more accurately, from the bedroom of a ten-year-old admirer of monster movies. Their bumpy, broken surfaces are just what they seem–accretions of junk thrust aggressively at us. It’s hard to miss La Mantia’s boyish fascination with gore and power.

But La Mantia’s first one-person show is a great argument against judging art by its appearance. A 29-year-old native Chicagoan, son of Chicago painter Paul LaMantia, the artist cites war movies, sword-fighting films, monster movies, TV science fiction, and heavy-metal music as his inspirations. He began making art at age 3, abandoned it at 14, and resumed it five years later, after a nightmare about a Frankenstein monster “eating people’s heads”–including his own. But each of these sculptures has a balance one cannot find in their pop sources. At every point on their surface, as well as in the form as a whole, aggressive, phallic elements are counterweighted by a decorative quality that defuses them, undercutting the works’ solidity.

Kitty Hawk, for example, is hardly an unambiguous celebration of flying machines. Grafted to the top of a biplane shape is a smaller toy jet fighter, complete with toy pilot. The biplane’s nose resembles a many-eyed beast, echoing the playful or fierce faces fighter pilots often paint on their planes. Bottles under the wings mimic the shape of engines, but once one notices that they’re empty, they seem oddly powerless. And part of the face on the nose is a kind of red-and-white hand drooping downward as if to deflect a sneeze. The plane’s surface is a busy accretion of shapes and colors, each element held in balance with every other, preventing any from dominating. La Mantia achieves a similar balance in Sho-Down, a red, pink, and white military tank covered with strands of beads and necklacelike coiled metal bands, which repeat at well-spaced intervals, adorning the surface. The tank is topped with purple roses, recalling the famous 60s photograph of a hippie placing a flower in a gun barrel.

Boogerman is a grotesque monster whose arms thrust forward menacingly. Yet even he incorporates nonthreatening, “feminine” elements. One hand ends in a forest of greenish spaghettilike wires, forming a plantlike maze more open than solid; the other has many colorful clawlike fingers also widely spaced. Various metal cylinders on his body resemble gun barrels, but the surfaces of many include open areas, and the openings in the solid barrels are too big for a gun, defusing any threat. Two red pistols adorn Boogerman’s waist, but next to each is a red ring that seems to echo the much smaller arc surrounding the trigger. In a pattern that recurs throughout the show, these rings provide a “feminine” counterweight to the “male” guns; every phallic shape here either contains its opposite or that opposite sits nearby.

Ultimately these cluttered monsters deny their own objecthood: the decorative surface patterns, with their contradictory details, are as engaging as the overall shape. Consider the twisting form of Flash Back, which cannot be seen clearly from any one angle. Dolls’ heads with painted hair and a row of bottles forming an “arm” curving outward, like other elements of this piece, are separate from one another. La Mantia offers an unexpected critique not only of aggression but of the idea of the artwork as a discrete entity. Could these quirky assemblages of papier-mache, fragments of industrial machinery, and polyester resin hide a conceptual dimension, a bit of the ethos of a Robert Smithson, beneath their pop, macho surfaces? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Muireadach’s Cross” by Dan Addington; “Kitty Hawk” by Jasaon La Mantia.