Peter Drake

at Linda Warren, through November 8

Chris Patch

at Monique Meloche, through October 18

Lee Tracy

at Oskar Friedl, through October 4

The four passengers on a roller coaster in Peter Drake’s painting During convey the essence of speed and excitement. A little girl in front has her mouth open; the woman behind her has her arms raised and her tongue out. Their diagonal downward movement creates a dynamic contrast with the painting’s rectangle, yet Drake also undercuts the sense of a single direction. The space seems clotted with forms, the diagonal lines of the ride’s structure oppose those of the cars, the surface is rough and the colors heavy. This is a picture divided against itself.

The same might be said of Too Too, in which a man in a tutu marches in New York’s gay pride parade with arms outspread in a pose that combines courage and hysteria; to his right is a man on roller skates who’s nearly obliterated by a series of vertical lines. These suggest the breakup of low-resolution video–and in fact the image comes from a video Drake shot. Indeed, all 15 paintings at Linda Warren are copied, with alterations, from Drake’s digital videos or his family’s home movies. Copying from photos has become common, in part because of Gerhard Richter’s influence. But unlike Richter, Drake chooses images that provide insights into particular personalities. He writes that the marcher in Too Too demonstrates heroism: “Anyone who can walk down Fifth Avenue wearing a hot pink tutu and high-tops is performing a heroic act.”

Drake, who lives in New York City and was born in 1957 in a nearby suburb, traces his interest in art to an eye operation when he was seven: “I could see the world clearly for the first time. I started drawing everything I saw, and I never stopped.” Vermeer was an influence later because of “his appreciation of the lens” and lens-related effects like depth of field. Another important influence was Italian fresco painting, from Giotto to Tiepolo. One of the things Drake says he’s trying to do is to combine these two traditions–to “create a hybrid between optics and monumentality.”

Drake’s technique is unusual: in all the paintings but one, he applies a solid field of color, then removes some of it with sandpaper to create a white sketch of his figures; later he adds color in layers. “It feels like you’re lighting the painting,” he says. His method creates tension between the rough surface and his “realistic” depictions of actual scenes, a tension that suggests the inevitable distancing effect of all media.

Before he started to base his work on photos and videos, Drake painted dream images, and in some cases here his manipulations produce a touch of unreality. In Clothes Make the Man a pride marcher in a flamboyant headdress is pasted in front of a suburban home as a commentary, Drake says, on “these straight people coming into Manhattan to see the gay pride parade, something that would be threatening to them in some other space.” The subject’s obvious displacement and hollow-eyed confrontational gaze create a sense of mystery. (Here the roughened surface is created by paint in swirling brush strokes.) Trial Separation–part of Drake’s series on “yard art,” also taken from videos–shows a gnome ornament in the foreground with a Buddha-like female statue behind. Looking in different directions, these statuettes seem caught up in some inexplicable drama. Drake’s combination of photographic and painterly qualities makes a single interpretation unlikely and suggests that in our media-driven world, clarity of meaning and undivided emotion are no longer possible.

Chris Patch is also inspired by media images, as shown in his 24 paintings and drawings at Monique Meloche. “Rather than directly copying nature,” he writes in his statement, “I compose images from a range of sources including vintage calendars, travel magazines and nature books that depict breathtaking vistas and wondrous scenes in highly saturated color.” Critics have remarked that the limited palette and areas of solid color in his paintings recall early-1950s national park posters, the backgrounds in Road Runner cartoons, and paint-by-numbers paintings.

What’s surprising is how much of the natural world’s power comes through in these schematic works. Nature’s Giants looks up the trunks of tall trees that end in a leafy canopy; patches of blue sky can be seen. At the convergence point the trees’ leaves swirl in a circle, producing an almost vertiginous effect: the viewer feels not only dwarfed by the trees but a bit humbled, even unbalanced, by their presence. The dark brown areas of the two-toned trunks are like voids, adding mystery. Looking at the photo Patch used (available in a book at the gallery) inspires none of these feelings: the tree bark isn’t the least suggestive, and while the composition is similar to Patch’s, it has no emotional impact.

Patch not only copies illustrations but borrows cliches of representation. Yet his vision of the natural world individuates his schematic style, which resembles a woodcut. Untitled (Fox) is a study in three textures: the fox’s reddish-brown fur, the bark of the tree behind it, and the stringy grass below. All are painted in equal detail. Similarities in the three textures suggest not only ecological unity but the function of the fox’s coat as camouflage. By contrast the photo on which the painting is based personifies the animal, emphasizing its bared teeth to make this predator stand out from its surroundings. The fox is further differentiated from its environment by its coat, which is much more finely textured than the bark.

Patch, who was born in Maine in 1974 and lives there today, grew up playing in the woods. Exposed to art early–his maternal grandparents were artists, his mom was a modern dancer, and his merchant-seaman father does a form of macrame called “knot work”–Patch draws inspiration not from the art world but from consumer publications, including comic books. When he was earning his MFA at the School of the Art Institute, he was influenced in part by Arturo Herrera–but rather than painting cartoon figures, Patch removed them and concentrated on the backgrounds–“strange landscapes that were sort of familiar and unfamiliar.” To him a cartoon tree or bush seemed “more universal than Yogi Bear”–in fact part of the power of Patch’s work comes from his removal of the human. And his use of supple colors rather than bright, commanding ones gives these seemingly anonymous paintings an unexpected delicacy.

In most of Patch’s works, this delicacy heightens the beauty of nature, which is multiply distanced: the artist’s sources were likely inspired by earlier paintings or photographs. But Patch revivifies the cultural cliches. The diptych Double Swamp Painting is enveloping: the two panels, hung with a break between them, heighten the sense that the scene extends far beyond the work’s borders. One feels overwhelmed by a dense thicket of undergrowth and low-hanging branches, reminding me of tight spots in the Maine woods where generations of logging have produced an even more chaotic mix of vegetation. A wall drawing, Hawk, is painted in a corner and extends across its two walls, and the subject of Bear, another wall drawing, appears about to lumber into the gallery in a gently humorous comment on the art world’s usual alienation from the natural world.

Like Patch, Lee Tracy was born in Maine, in 1961, and has a degree, a BFA, from the School of the Art Institute; she lives in Chicago today. And like Patch, she says she’s not primarily inspired by the art world; instead of media images, however, she draws on her reading and “excursions into nature.” These are particularly important to her conceptual pieces, which are very different from her paintings; for Red Trees she covered over 300 tree stumps in the woods in red fabric. But curiously her 15 paintings at Oskar Friedl resemble earlier art–specifically, abstract expressionist painting–more than Drake’s or Patch’s work does.

Two Suns shows two yellow orbs on a luminous yellow field seemingly drenched in light. The paintings of Gottlieb and Rothko come to mind, the former for his use of sun shapes and the latter for his mix of luminosity and depth. Tracy says that before this show she was reading about “gold, the invention of money, and the legend of El Dorado,” and these shapes have a suggestive iconic power similar to that of the abstract expressionists. With its vertical black bands on an orange field, Be recalls Barnett Newman, though Tracy’s lines are slightly tilted and far from even. The Way Things Are Hidden shows a light pink ladder ascending to a mysterious black shape, suggesting a spiritual quest. But the oddly curved line of the dark shape hints at a specific object rather than a universal symbol.

Tracy’s paintings have a rare sincerity and authenticity, delivered without a whiff of irony. They also confound the notion that earlier styles of art can’t be revived. Her paintings radiate an original vision, perhaps because of their fleshy tactility: they seem to record the particular experiences of an individual in time, not a quest for the eternal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Fred Camper.