Two new shows highlight Expressionist-style oil painting
Published: January 1, 2014
Through Jan. 4 at sophiajacob
By Marisa Takal
Through Jan. 11 at Rock512Devil
You could be forgiven for thinking something like a miniature movement is afoot over on West Franklin Street. The three curators behind sophiajacob have been hosting high-quality shows in their space for over a year now, but when Rock512Devil opened a gallery/bookstore next door, it began to feel like something more definite was happening on the 500 block. Especially when both galleries hosted openings for shows of Expressionist-ish, quasi-naive oil paintings that border on, and perhaps play with, a sense of the amateur joy of pushing paint around on a canvas in such a way that it almost becomes conceptual. (And I have to say, I can’t wait to set these shows, and Adam Estes’ at Metro Gallery, against the big German Expressionism show that opens at the BMA later this month.)
Liz Durette’s show at sophiajacob is the first show the gallery has devoted solely to painting, despite the fact that Durette is, or rather was, not a painter. If you recognize her name, it is as a performer and composer of experimental music. (I had originally intended to do a profile of Durette, but to her credit, she refused to talk with me, saying “I’m not ready for the attention,” a response I find extraordinarily admirable.)
David Armacost, Jordan Bernier, and Steven Riddle, the curators of sophiajacob, approached Durette to produce paintings for them because they knew her as a musician. They agreed to act as what Armacost called “studio assistants,” stretching Durette’s canvases and providing her with everything she needed. The results are mixed, but they nevertheless feel vital.
Though her music is not punk, Durette’s painting is. The tension between two not quite exactly mirrored paintings that hang across from one another, “Magic Carpet Day” and “Magic Carpet Night,” may best capture her punkness. In these pieces—of a similar garden scene with a grid reminiscent of Mary Anne Arntzen in the center and a Rousseau-ish garden surrounding it—Durette looks to a wide variety of historical sources in search of simplicity, just as the Ramones and New York Dolls mined dusty records in search of the primal quality of early rock ’n’ roll, which still shared an aesthetic of “three chords and the truth” with country. Like that music, her paintings—and really the whole project, as conceived by the curator—remind us that painting really should be fun. But the distance between the diurnal and nocturnal versions of the painting also creates an intellectual frisson that is really quite pleasant. The night painting levitates and glows as the latticework grid, strewn with lights, lifts off against the black background thrumming with stars, like some Whitman-esque vision of the grandness of life and the wonder of the world, offset by the immediacy of the vegetation, which frames it—the prickly green and weeping blues of leaves and the startled red of flowers. It is very direct and almost ugly except for its thrilling beauty. In the diurnal version, impressionist patches almost transform into Turner-y glows.
None of the other paintings look like these. “A Specific Vertical Space” is almost as effective or interesting, but is entirely different in spirit as it creates motion and tension with the juxtaposition of subtle or earthy colors in vertical stripes.If Durette ran a squeegee down it, it would be Richter; it’s kind of like the signal of colored strips that came when TV quit broadcasting late at night, back before cable, as redesigned by Martha Stewart. And again, that is kind of a good thing.
Actually most of them have some little trick or some real idea that’s enough to hold the viewer’s interest. “Sitting Mystery” is like a snowman Buddha made of vibrating light, and “Organic and Inorganic Cabochons, Pigments,” with its colored dots on intense, rich, and almost-textured black circles, feels like a dream of vinyl records floating. “Through Plants up the Ladder” feels like a 1980s skateboard.
This is far from one of the best shows in town this year, but it is one of the more interesting—especially when taken together with Z1, Marisa Takal’s show curated by Max Guy, next door at Rock512Devil. Unlike Durette’s show, Takal’s paintings are best viewed as a series. Instead of the abrasive but minimalist energy of a punk song, Takal’s paintings seem to build like a crazy, primitive animation to create a narrative. Letting your eye follow the paintings from the front door to the back wall of the small gallery has something of the effect of the ancient cave paintings in Chauvet as presented by Herzog. It is a primitive cinema.
Takal achieves this effect by the increasing, and then decreasing, importance of the primary elements of her visual language: Lightning bolts, muscular arms and torsos, cartoon faces, and drops of liquid. “Feel Me When U Can’t Feel Urself” contains all of these elements in such a way that, if your eye strikes it first, you might see a double meaning in the “Urself” of the title and read it as the ur-self, the original motifs out of which the others grow. The series reaches its apex with the climactic “Strong Smart Affectionate”—featuring a pink-faced woman, cartoon dogs, and drops whose Clorox color now causes them to look like semen—and “Love Is Hard for Real Tho.” In this painting, the muscular chest, crooked finger, lightning bolts, and liquid droplets achieve a certain apotheosis, and then, as you work around in the opposite direction, the same elements decrease in intensity through “ripG” and “Wings of a Dove (Ya),” which also introduces a new parallel image, a bathing beauty in a bikini, almost hidden in a corner between arms and bolts.
Like Durette, Takal seems to relish the touch of the paint and the deliberate sloppiness of her images. Most of the paintings appear to be on cheap, even Michael’s-bought, canvases. And like Durette, they were all created over a short period of time (in this case, Takal, who lives in New York, spent a two-month residency painting at Coward Shoe). And it is also true that some of the paintings, such as “MML 12691,” seem too amateurish, better suited for the wall of a dorm room than a gallery. But, like the galleries they are presented in, both of these shows offer new signs of life: When computers make technical precision easy and therefore empty, the sloppiness of the human touch can become the only thing that reminds us we are real.
> Email Baynard Woods