Georges Mazilu

at Eastwick, through December 23

Scott Harrison

at Lyonswier Packer, through December 23

By Fred Camper

The figures in Georges Mazilu’s 12 paintings at Eastwick seem to float in ambiguous spaces. At once powerful beings and fabricated puppets or mannequins, they’re oddly divided, both spiritual entities pondering their place in the cosmos and clowns putting on a show.

In part these contemplative, wryly humorous paintings speculate about the ways a person projects into and marks off space. The clown in Le fou de carreau plays a long flute, and in his left hand he holds a very thin circular band that, set against the dark background, seems to both parse space and hint at a globe. His gaze and the flute project forward, and the circle he holds is echoed throughout the picture–in his hat, his head, the edge of a leather strap on his arm, a similar band that arcs from his head.

In Le jury two men sit at a table while a woman stands in the left foreground. The title suggests that they’re weighing her fate, but there are other things going on as well. The table’s perspective is oddly reversed: narrower at its front than its rear, it thrusts forward, as do the pointed hands of one juror–and both their pointy noses. Once again their eyes peer into the space before them, while hers are cast down. A power relationship is set up–partly because she’s nude–in which she’s the object of their attention. But she’s also arguably ennobled by cutting herself off from them.

Mazilu, who had extensive art training in his native Romania before emigrating to Paris in 1982, is clearly influenced by the old masters; Sam Hunter’s excellent essay in a book on Mazilu (on sale in the gallery) cites “Bruegel, Bosch, Velazquez, and Goya, among others.” Hunter also discusses the half-human nature of Mazilu’s “hybrid figures” and connects the artist’s representations of “man’s solitary state…even in a crowd” with Camus and Sartre.

But the paintings’ real strength is the central tension between the figures’ human natures and the sense that they’re dissolving into pure paint or light. The usually darker, rather vacant backgrounds are painted in shades of brown; indeed, every color here seems undergirded by brown or tan. And though their bodies are often sharply outlined, they sometimes seem to disintegrate: in Le fou de carreau the clown’s brain seems to be leaking out in a smudge near the top of his head, and the edge of the woman’s right arm in Le jury is also smudged.

Even more to the point is the quality of the characters’ skin: built up in thin, transparent layers, it’s an extraordinary blend of luminosity and depth. But unlike such early Netherlandish masters as van Eyck, who originated this layering technique, Mazilu uses it to blur as well as clarify his subjects’ forms. Sometimes he paints subtly different colors on top of others in small patches, making the skin less well-defined. This can also happen at the edges: on the Jury woman’s left shoulder, different layers end at slightly different spots.

But what’s most impressive–and expressive–is Mazilu’s dynamic mix of solidity and translucence, the sense of forms having hard surfaces yet dissolving and blending. This is not simply a matter of achieving a pleasing look; Mazilu’s ambiguous surfaces express his troubled speculations on identity. Holding up the circle in Le fou de carreau is both a world-embracing gesture that articulates and measures space and a futile effort made even more absurd by the band’s thinness. Nothing seems certain despite Mazilu’s often traditional representational approach: the woman’s skin in Le jury makes one wonder whether she’s an actual presence or a creature of light. Similarly, the jurors’ leather garments seem both solid and liquid, and though one wears a checkered shirt, the checks are an irregular jumble rather than a symbol of the sureness of geometry.

Just as leather and human skin are kin in Le jury, in other paintings humans and animals are fundamentally alike: the very way Mazilu paints can make ambition and belief in human prerogative seem as artificial as the circle held by the fool. The two figures walking side by side in Man and Donkey seem of equal intelligence. Though there’s a clear power relationship–the donkey’s eyes are lowered while the man looks forward–the mix of congealing and dissolving surfaces in both figures makes any hierarchy seem arbitrary. One of the donkey’s legs is attached to its body by a hinge–is this a toy? But the man’s arm is apparently hinged too at the elbow, and a strap connects his left foot to his leg, which is green. He’s almost as much a leather marionette as the donkey: Mazilu is as preoccupied with illusion as he is with the unity of things.

In Couple de danseurs the man seems to be coming apart: a leatherlike strap links one of his eyeballs to his garment and seems to be the only thing preventing his head from floating away–he has no neck. A somewhat more intact woman appears to comfort him. But the sense in this painting and the others that these creatures are halfway between humans and marionettes in no way diminishes their power. These pictures may depict isolated souls, but on a formal level Mazilu creates mysterious linkages, and his vision ties his characters to one another and to his measureless backgrounds, giving his subjects an almost spiritual presence and connecting human with inanimate and the visible with the invisible.

There’s something European about Mazilu’s mix of old master technique and philosophical themes, especially in contrast with the 13 watercolor-and-ink paintings and 10 drawings by Scott Harrison–formerly a Chicagoan and a tattoo artist–at Lyonswier Packer (a joint venture of Aaron Packer and Michael Lyons Wier at the old Lyons Wier space). The press release mentions such influences as “trading cards, retablo paintings, and Egyptian hieroglyphs”; classic Hollywood cartoons seem another inspiration for Harrison’s bright, bold forms: his appealingly goofy conceptions often suggest the fluid transformations of animators Max Fleischer, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones.

Part of the pleasure of Harrison’s ink-and-watercolor paintings comes from their bright, unambiguous optimism. Even when what is depicted is as mysterious and surreal as anything in Mazilu, the figures themselves seem cheerful and confident. The face of one man in Gem of the Prairie resembles a woman’s posterior; proudly holding a bottle in one hand and an old sock in the other, he seems as impervious to the bullets flying about him as is his T-shirted companion, who’s solemnly contemplating a giant sausage in an oversize ashtray. In another painting (most are untitled), red-and-white striped bloomers have facial features, as does each of the five feathers atop the bloomers. Clouds on either side suggest that this “being” is ascending into the air.

Harrison colors with some subtlety: skin is darker near its edges, and even a white T-shirt is slightly shaded. This delicacy, in combination with the bold originality of his shapes and the often unfathomable narratives they suggest, gives his art a suppleness and subtlety often absent from work with a pop-culture base. But the ascending bloomers also imply a speculative relationship between objects and space, a questioning of meaning that ties Harrison’s work to Mazilu’s.

This connection is stronger in the drawings, whose gray paper forms the background for Harrison’s figures and gives each work a uniform texture. In one, an openmouthed man spouts a giant tongue that snakes around the picture: presumably in part a joke on cunnilingus, the tongue branches into vagina-like openings that hold bottles, and breasts hang from it like fruit. Like Mazilu’s figures, Harrison’s often project into an apparently infinite space. In another drawing, a can with a sun-god face, a funnel for a cap, hairy legs, and a caveman club in one hand is seen under a floating wisdom tooth. The free relationship between Harrison’s forms and the contrasts they conjure up–between the primitive and civilized, ignorance and knowledge, male and female–recall Mazilu’s view that the human spirit is intertwined with the inanimate world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.