Daniel Bodner

at Roy Boyd, through February 18

Oli Watt: Actual Size

at Anchor Graphics, through February 22

Daniel Bodner’s paintings capture “the unbridgeable gap between people,” critic Wim van der Beek wrote in 1994. But Jürgen Kisters saw a “story of love, of tenderness” in a 1999 show while the Tribune’s Alan Artner found in the same exhibit a “somber existential atmosphere.” Bodner himself has written that his work questions whether the artist must create “a new space” in order to include the figure. A similar range of responses is likely to Bodner’s 20 paintings now at Roy Boyd. His rough-hewn figures with indistinct faces occupy such vaguely outlined settings that they could be almost anyone anywhere. Most are nude and either male or of indeterminate gender, which adds to the sense that their identities have been stripped away.

Yet these hovering figures have an almost spooky power, made more resonant by Bodner’s intentional ambiguity: the figures have the look of posed photos, yet the surfaces convey both painterly effects and natural disintegration. Bodner usually applies his paint with a spackling knife, then scrapes it away in order to evoke “processes such as mold, oxidization and decay,” he writes. A monochrome look and off-whites suggest decaying photographs and give the figures an otherworldly aura. Together his backgrounds and figures have a startling luminosity, perhaps associated with the northern light of Amsterdam, where Bodner has lived since 1990. “All those grays and washed-out tones,” he says. “And the land is concave and the sky seems to come right down to meet it.” In DB 16 one of the figures is painted so transparently that the lines of the water and shore behind him can be seen through his body, suggesting a pentimento effect and making the figure even more ghostly.

This painting is one of 15 here loosely based on photographs by Wilhem von Gloeden, an Austrian count who moved to Sicily as a young man and in the late 1800s began taking pictures, mostly nudes, of local boys and young men. Bodner doesn’t paint directly from von Gloeden’s photos but borrows remembered poses, and sometimes backgrounds–then undercuts the whole point of a photo with his rough, painterly surfaces. Similarly, though von Gloeden’s photographs lovingly reveal details of the male body, Bodner’s figures seem about to be consumed by paint, absorbed by blurs and fissures; figures stripped to their essence are set adrift in a cosmos full of random motion and collisions. In the indeterminate space of DB 25 heavy drips of paint, including a black mass at upper right, seemingly threaten Bodner’s vulnerable nudes with obliteration.

Born in Milwaukee in 1963, Bodner drew the figure in childhood, and his parents frequently took him and his brothers to art exhibits, including some in New York. In high school his favorite painters were the impressionists, van Gogh and de Kooning–though by the end of high school he’d become interested in other subjects and stopped drawing. In college he changed his major from psychology to art after he “just flipped” over California artist Nathan Oliveira’s abstracted female nudes; Giacometti’s sculpture is another influence. Bodner says that his figures’ isolation may be rooted partly in his own long-standing feeling of being an outsider, in part the result of “knowing I was gay at a very young age.” But the absence of detail in his work distances his figures from anyone’s story.

Four of Bodner’s paintings are based on very old negatives of what appear to be formal studio portraits of distant relatives in eastern Europe. These figures are of course fully clothed: in RB 73 two men in suits stand at either side of a lectern facing the camera. Their poses suggest the authority a traditional portrait seeks to convey–undercut by Bodner’s “cracks” and scratches, emphasizing the impermanence of our images and our bodies.

Though von Gloeden set up his compositions quite formally, many of the poses Bodner chooses have a look unique to photographs: the subject is caught in a random moment, head twisted to the side, one foot placed tentatively before the other. By creating several sets of ambiguities–are his figures posed or unposed, captured photographically or in paint?–Bodner throws the question of interpretation back on the viewer, reminding each of us of our own uniqueness and hence separateness from others.

Ever since Duchamp’s readymades, artists have been shifting attention away from what’s depicted and toward the artwork itself, questioning what constitutes an art object and explicitly making the viewer part of the artistic process. Bodner’s ambiguous paintings provoke confrontation with the viewer, and so do Oli Watt’s works at Anchor Graphics, though in a completely different way. The strangely banal subject matter in this exhibit includes business cards, shopping lists, and pizza receipts. Thirty-three of the 38 pieces in the show are part of an ongoing series, “Legacy Suite,” which Watt describes in his statement as copies of “pieces of paper that accumulated in the family car during the past year.” Printed the same size as the original, they might make the viewer wonder what point there is in simply reproducing a coatroom receipt or fortune cookie prediction.

But Watt isn’t merely reproducing them: he’s removed the creases and smudges one would expect to find and made his colors richer, fuller, and purer than those of the actual objects. He decided not to employ the scanner-computer-printer approach that would seem the obvious choice for such work after he used a computer in the initial phases of one or two pieces and found the results were “too far away from the actual thing.” Instead he chose to make silk screens using transparencies from a photocopier. He then mixed inks to match the colors of the originals: the red and blue of a parking lot receipt, for example, are rendered in his custom-made colors applied in separate passes using separate stencils, giving the prints as a whole a vividness, purity, and absoluteness impossible with an ink-jet printer–or in the mass-produced original. Even a black-and-white Jewel receipt surprises: the surface is smoother, the white cleaner, the print blacker than in any actual receipt.

Watt–who was born in Chicago in 1968, grew up in Florida, and moved back here in 1994–was often taken to visit his mother’s family in Kassel, Germany, site of the contemporary art exhibit Documenta. His interest in art was sparked in 1982 when he saw 7,000 stones heaped in front of the main exhibition building–the beginning of Joseph Beuys’s 7,000 Oaks, for which one tree was to be planted in the area for each stone. A major post-Duchampian figure, Beuys is an influence, but Watt also mentions Rembrandt and the way he “pulled the light out of the darkness.” Perhaps having studied older painting enhances the sensitivity of Watt’s prints. (Bodner also mentions Rembrandt, as well as several northern Renaissance painters, as an inspiration for the white underpainting of some of his smaller pictures, which “makes the dark layers more luminous.”)

Watt thinks printmaking is the perfect medium for depicting life today because “a huge percentage of the visual information we get…is printed matter.” But rather than simply repeating, or even amplifying, the assaultive flatness of a mass-culture artifact, Watt finds luminous beauty in each. In the linocut Receipt (which is not part of “Legacy Suite”), he blows up a store receipt to 46 inches high, so that the lines and smudges around the numbers begin to seem monumentalized halos, implicitly arguing that the visual details of things we normally overlook are of interest in themselves.

Watt’s carefulness and his quotidian subjects are an odd combination. Another “Legacy Suite” print shows a child’s scrawl in blue crayon with the words “Charlie’s mad face” written underneath in black; the original was a drawing of his mood that Watt’s son Charlie was asked to make in preschool. Watt’s crayon line looks less tentative than most such lines, heightening the sense of anger evoked by a clot of scribbles at the center. A blue postcard announces that the recipient is three months overdue for a dental appointment; handwritten at the bottom in red ink are two phone numbers, one of them crossed out. Such scrawls link Watt’s work to Bodner’s: both are true to the contingencies of life as it’s actually lived.