After several millennia, movies, television, the cell-phone camera, and Jackson Pollock, you’d think serious figurative painting would have had it. And as far as a large segment of the international contemporary art business is concerned, it has. Even the work of an ace like John Currin isn’t so much in the figurative tradition as it is an extraordinarily accomplished joke about it.
But there are still those who paint the human figure as if they mean it. Jeremy Long clearly means it.
Not that he’s grim. The oils now on view at Linda Warren go all-out impish at times, both formally and in terms of their content. Long likes to make art history jokes of his own, playing with perspective, proportion, classical composition, and modernist tropes–often while gently satirizing his own life. One heroic six-by-eight-foot canvas, The Painter and His Family, shows a mother and child in something like adoration mode while Long stands off to the side folding laundry.
The image is joshing, yet that Long chooses to play it out across 48 square feet bespeaks his ambition. And that he sustains it so beautifully bespeaks his mastery. Like the other two large canvases in the show, The Painter and His Family advertises Long’s chops with its nearly photographic depiction of a Fiestaware pitcher, a wicker laundry basket, daisies, fruit, people, and all manner of textiles from quilted blanket to terry cloth towel.
The strength of this painting goes well beyond Long’s ability to nail a piece of crockery, however. There’s an immanence underlying the perfect craftsmanship in The Painter and His Family. A sense of another, less tangible perfection that I felt as joy.
Obviously, that feeling owes a lot to Long’s blissful subject matter: the young mother on the bed, rather eccentrically dressed in a black leotard top and pajama bottoms, breasts big for nursing, eyes fixed on her baby, smile light and deep; the Sendak-ian baby itself, pink and robust if not quite certain how to work its movable parts. But this bliss has a deep structure. Embedded within the iconic scene is an equally iconic framework, built around a kind of invisible halo, a horizon point centered on the mother, that creates a complex of triangles when its rays strike the opposing lines of the bed. Caught in this cross fire, the baby ends up looking a little like Moses floating in a boat of geometry (which, by the way, gives another layer of meaning to that wicker laundry basket). On one level, the triangles are there to create an implicit web of love. On another, they give Long an opportunity for further virtuosic display, allowing him to break up the image and manipulate it on a purely formal level without destroying its human reality. Despite the representational context, certain triangles disregard perspective, behaving as if they were painted by Georges Braque.
One source of the immanence, then, is just Long’s delight in his own powers, radiating right up out of the canvas. He’s drunk with the whole Western tradition, and apparently able to reference it at will. But the complex of triangles also communicates a classical sense of connection and proportion among the painting’s elements. A sense of well-being in an ordered universe. Oddly, The Painter and His Family reminds me of nothing so much as Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper: a huge, hyperrealistic depiction of Jesus and his disciples communing in absolute visual symmetry–which in turn intensifies their communion.
Of course, there’s one element in Long’s painting that may blow the whole ordered-universe argument all to hell. It’s a set of parallel stripes–white, blue, white again, then red–that can be seen through a window in the background. Angling upward from left to right, the stripes are completely at odds with established reality: they look like nothing you’d ever expect to see from your living room–unless you happen to live very, very near an airport, in which case they resemble the stripes on the sides of American Airlines jets. Could the thing outside the window be a fuselage? Is Long alluding to 9/11 (in which two American Airlines planes were hijacked) as a way to suggest that there’s a dangerous world out there, beyond the bed, the baby, and the clean laundry? Possibly. Either that or he’s just playing around with colors and shapes.
The Painter and His Family deserves special consideration because it’s a masterpiece. The other big paintings in the show are every bit as technically proficient–the brushwork on some denim jeans alone capable of generating a good 20 minutes’ admiration–but neither as risky nor as satisfying. Long is also exhibiting some older urban landscapes, which seem generic despite their competence. At 34, he’s found a sort of perfection in The Painter and His Family–an ideal medium for his skill, eye, playfulness, sense of history, sense of beauty, sense of the divine.
Caleb O’Connor also paints the human figure, and he’s also extraordinarily proficient at it. But this 26-year-old Hawaiian artist isn’t ready for the one-man show Ann Nathan has given him. His oil paintings remind me of the poetry I wrote at about his age: full of allegorical cliche and sex fascination dressed up as lyricism. The schoolboy romanticism of some of his titles is telling: a sleeping woman is called Dreamer; a half-naked one Pele, the fire goddess. O’Connor’s at his worst when he allows cliche to invade his technique as well as his titles. Overburdened by symbolic stillness and textured surfaces, some pieces tread close to the realm of black velvet.
But then there’s Guardians of Cultural Fire, a symbolically still, allegorically cliched depiction of three young men forging a spearhead over hot stones. Ignore everything except the kid in the foreground with his back to us, then ignore everything about him except the way his red, white, and blue board shorts ride low over his butt. That little confluence of tailbone and surfer-dude fashion constitutes a perfect haiku of observation, almost but not quite lost in O’Connor’s attempted epic making. Together with a series of accomplished cockfighting pictures, it conveys some hope for what O’Connor might do next.
When: Through Sat 10/29: Tue-Sat 11-5
Where: Linda Warren, 1052 W. Fulton
When: Through Fri 10/14: Tue-Fri 10-5:30, Sat 11-5
Where: Ann Nathan, 212 W. Superior
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Foley.