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Art review: 'The art that dare not speak its name' at CB1 Gallery

July 16, 2010 |  7:30 am

400.Der Eierbeutel.simonson100601_CB1_024 It seems painting is always in the Christ-like process of dying or being resurrected. When can we stop wringing our hands?

It’s been at least 30 years since painting ceased to be the dominant artistic medium; that “death” was one of Conceptual art’s gifts — freedom from labels. One no longer needs to be solely a painter or a sculptor or a photographer (or a movie star, for that matter, à la Dennis Hopper).

Although of course, one can still specialize. Just because painting is no longer king of the hill doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Artists such as Amy Sillman, Luc Tuymans, Mark Bradford, Dianna Molzan and many others all do very interesting things with paint.

The works by four emerging artists at CB1 Gallery are therefore saddled with an overly dramatic title, “The art that dare not speak its name.” The phrase comes from New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who wryly criticized the lack of contemporary painting in New York museums earlier this year. She was playing on a quote — “the love that dare not speak its name” — from Oscar Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. But could painting really be as beleaguered as homosexuality in the 19th century?

Certainly not in Matt Lifson’s homoerotic tableaux. His bucolic scenes are abruptly interrupted by incongruous imagery, giving them a disjointed, dreamlike quality. A naked man and boy kissing in the middle of a pond is overlaid by what might be drapery or a twisted garment, some vertical streaks of color, and another fully dressed man floating overhead. Such images are somewhat reminiscent of the jarring, media-influenced juxtapositions in the early work of David Salle, but where Salle could be biting and dark, Lifson’s work feels nostalgic and florid.

In an entirely different vein are Alexander Kroll’s small, thickly painted abstractions. They range from gloppy versions of Finish Fetish paintings to brightly colored, multilayered agglomerations of viscous brushwork, hard-edged geometric shapes and organic networks of polygonal outlines. While the last are the most interesting element — a tentative pattern laid atop chaos — the paintings feel overworked and all over the place.

By contrast, Lily Simonson’s canvases are all about focus. Described in the press release as pictures of invertebrates (insects, crustaceans), the images appear to be extreme close-ups that flicker between still life, a fragmented figuration and abstraction. In “Der Eierbeutel” (“The Egg Sac”), a lumpy, bright orange shape extends diagonally across a field of equally bright green globules. The image looks like an abstraction but also evokes fruit and fleshy body parts. Similarly, in “The Births of Venus,” a cascade of brownish globes pile up like eerily fleshy pomegranates. By playing with scale — are we looking at eggs, limbs, molecules? — Simonson collapses distinctions, not only between genres of painting but between us and our small, exoskeleton-wearing neighbors.

400.beaucage But none of these artists seems to have as much fun as Edith Beaucage, whose confidently spontaneous figures are breezy, casual and exuberantly expressive. Usually isolated on plain white grounds, Beaucage’s characters — and they are characters, not just figures — emerge from strikingly economical means. “Monster With Blue Eyes” is a Muppet-like figure whose “fur” has been quickly delineated in a fan of broad, blue-green brushstrokes. In the diptych “Hexagon” a brushy sketch of a woman on one canvas calmly looks at another, hexagonally shaped canvas painted in thick concentric stripes. It’s a succinct commentary on viewership that makes us aware of our own position in a network of gazes.

United only by painting, this group effort might’ve been better as four solo shows. That way, each body of work would be freed from the superfluous burden of “saving” the medium. While “The art that dare not speak its name” sets out to prove that painting is very much alive, it doth protest too much.

– Sharon Mizota

CB1 Gallery, 207 W. 5th St., L.A., (213) 806-7889, through Aug. 1. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.cb1gallery.com

Images: Top, Lily Simonson's “Der Eierbeutel” (“The Egg Sac”) and Edith Beaucage's “Hexagon."
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