Art review: LaDuke at Angles Gallery
In a 1506 drawing made as a study for an altarpiece in Venice, German artist Albrecht Durer placed the dark pupil of an angel's right eye smack in the compositional center of the sheet. The eye of a mystical, mythological creature is the visual and conceptual pivot around which everything else turns, and it corresponds with the human instrument of visual perception.
Tom LaDuke is up to something similar in "A Gothic Plot," one of seven paintings and five sculptures, all recent, in a terrific show that inaugurates Angles Gallery's new home. (It's in the space vacated last fall when Blum and Poe Gallery moved across the street.) An orange disk with a glowing yellowish pin-spot at the center peers out from a gray gloom, between thickly painted tree branches. Slowly a second eye and a black beak come into view, suggesting the fragmentary features of an owl.
In fact it's an image borrowed from "Blade Runner," the 1982 cult-classic film loosely based on Philip K. Dick's science fiction novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" The branches, plus a thick slather of white oil paint at the lower left and other splotchy shapes, come from an 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painting– a strange wedding picture in which the happy couple faces the transience of life in the form of a deep abyss plunging between chalky cliffs that overlook the sea.
The background for LaDuke's painting is a gray-toned studio interior, where a table holds a rudimentary still life. A dark, photographically painted tree branch in the still life rises up into the colorful, thickly painted branches that lie on the surface of the canvas.
All of LaDuke's paintings are similarly layered, shifting between abstraction and representation and with bits of suggestive visual information that don't coalesce. In one, a precarious stack of cardboard boxes is interrupted by elements of Jan van Eyck's 1434 "Arnolfini Wedding Portrait," in which the painter acted as a literal witness to the marital union. In another, a pack of hunters and their dogs from a wintry picture by Pieter Brueghel the Elder seems to descend onto Isabella Rossellini's luminous face in a still from the 1986 movie "Blue Velvet."
In all of these, a sinister (or at the very least melancholic) world lies just beneath the surface of perception. Light –whether directly experienced, reflected, remembered or depicted – is critical. Taking a page from Gerhard Richter, albeit in his own distinctive way, LaDuke exploits a painting's capacity for exposing handmade deceptions – a useful tool in a culture awash in the slippery photographic phantoms of reproduction.
One of the nicest touches in these large-scale paintings is the little cliffs of oil paint that hang precariously off the edges of the canvas. LaDuke emphasizes materiality, even when his own deft handling suppresses the paintbrush's tracks. No wonder he's a painter who also makes sculpture.
LaDuke's best sculptures also reverberate between perceptual and material, as in a fragile veil suspended inside a plexiglass box. Made from eyelashes, bits of eyebrow and other short strands of body hair, it re-creates the network of surface cracks in a Northern Renaissance portrait painting.
The most arresting sculpture is a nominal "body bag"– the ordinary black, polyurethane sack you might get at a hardware store. LaDuke's crumpled version was cast from an actual bag using an unlikely mixture of glue and graphite (you can still smell the materials). Horizontal and balanced precariously at one end, as if a piece of refuse blowing in the wind, the bag is carefully adorned with a painted logo for recycling, plus a date that corresponds to the artist's birth.
Peer inside the bag. At the far end, where the subtle contour of a phallus can be made out, tiny pinholes suggest a constellation of stars twinkling in a night sky. LaDuke is a latter-day Romantic, in full revolt against digital-age norms.
– Christopher Knight
Angles Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 396-5019, through Feb. 20. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.anglesgallery.com
Image: A Gothic Plot (top) and Auto Destruct. Courtesy of Angles Gallery.