by Terrington Calas, Gambit Weekly
LAST MONTH, while the Contemporary Arts Center’s “Body Photographic” attempted nobly to survey the range of today’s camera artists working with the figure – the most traditional of subjects – some other galleries took on tradition too, but more generally. And their efforts seemed especially insouciant, as if traditionalism were as much the order of the day as any remnants of the avant-garde. In short, as if the distinction no longer mattered. It was an encouraging sight.
At the CAC, we certainly expected a different posture. By virtue of its capacious title and by virtue of the Center’s progressive leanings, the “Body Photographic” could not escape a promise of “Look what’s new in figure photography. Look what’s startlingly new.” The show was arguably a strong one, with its aesthetic success attributable to the intelligence of key artists — but not, however, to anything startlingly new. Ultimately, despite a number of blatant or unconventional images, the traditional theme remained traditional. One corollary of “Body” is the loud reiteration that, in 1995, we cannot be shocked by serious art; we can only be pleased or disappointed. This is so unlike the avant-garde era, where shock and disturbance were indispensable conduits to the art’s meaning.
Today we must rely on the work itself. And when the work satisfies, it is probably content-heavy, not-so-shocking and, often, “traditional.” What I mean here, of course, is not an art that apes the past, but one that accepts it. This kind of traditionalism was at the core of three recent shows.
GEORGE DUREAU AND Elemore Morgan exhibited concurrently at Arthur Roger. But this was not the sympathetic pairing one might expect of two representational artists; their shows were sharply dissimilar. Morgan’s Postimpressionsit-inspired landscapes had the look and feel of the last century. He emerged as an apt assimilator though, at times, an exceptional one.
In Dureau’s new paintings the look is almost dateless, with no absolute antecedents.
His stylistic allusions are too many and too broad to really matter singly. And yet, their combination is partly what gives the work such an odd and compelling beauty. One might sense traces of Delacroix, Michelangelo, Bacon, Blake, Degas, but ultimately the style is Dureau’s alone. This is the rare case of a contemporary figurative painter who has achieved full singularity by so-called traditional means.
Dureau’s exhibition, tucked into the gallery’s handsome second showroom, created something of an eerie private theatre. It was filled with his familiar dramatic figures, this time rendered in a provocative new palette of greys and ochres and taupes. The effect was surpassingly mystical, almost transcendent – a feeling often intimated in previous works, but never so pervasive as here. This milieu is ideal for the exalted theme we’ve seen more and more in his recent work: the grandeur of human triumph.
Of course, the theme is a Classical one, but it is also Romantic, occasionally Modern, and certainly Postmodern. Indeed, it is not difficult to find in the work of some ambitious contemporary artists. In Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel and Leon Golub, one sees it consistently, usually conjoined with the spectre of inexorable tragedy.
But these artists are the isolated successes. Most often. the great human themes are badly managed, made trivial by a referential overload that has become typical. Many artists play out those themes in images that locate us precisely, images that touch directly upon the vanities of our time. This can work, but seldom does. There are latter- day conceptualists tossing unsubtle slogans at us, figurative painters portraying a “new” embarrassment of sexuality, multi-media artists presenting us with the whole of today’s cultural detritus.
Dureau opts for a grander, perhaps riskier posture; one mythical image to cover it all. I say “riskier” because a single image would have to have emblematic power, as well as a certain level of realism, to do the job. We see both in most of the new pictures.
These canvases are like fragments of some timeless epic poems, the deadened colors suggesting palimpsests. And the nude figure, the single image, makes a bold and poetic symbol of triumph. Dureau renders it with measured, isolated detail – specific features and body parts – just enough to seem factual, human. But the overriding impression remains epic: a noble figure with a Nietzschean aura.
This is seen clearly in Broken Pediment, the installation’s centerpiece. In it, a muscular nude is depicted falling with the collapsing structure around him. The moment, however, is more glorious than tragic. His upraised arms, his self-possessed manner — not to mention ecstatic passages of Dureau gestural brushwork – all transform the fall into a super-human flight.
Another notably forceful image is Nikos Apodos, in which a masculinized Victory is seen in a kind of handstand, aggressively filling the picture’s squarish format. It is a modem, haughtily perched Victory, but a surely convincing one. The figure itself, arching into a pyramidal diagram, is a perfect contemporary personification of the grand theme. He is not only victorious; he is arrogant. But face is not. It is the most real, most individualized one in the show. It gleams with a wry Raphaelean smile flint mitigates and levels it all.
Despite the classical power of these “flying figures,” they never seem idealized in a Renaissance sense. They seem less perfected than poetized, yet in some new way. To be sure, the deified Hellenistic nude is manifest in them; but so is our own “god” — dauntless modem man.
UNLIKE DUREAU, ELEMORE Morgan is more of his favored tradition than he is responsive to it. His fiery colors, his technique, his subject matter are all rooted in the late 19th century. He creates a sort of conglomerate Postimpressionism that he applies to the fields of southwestern Louisiana. When this translation works, it can produce paintings of considerable beauty.
The recent exhibition had fewer of them than we have seen in the past, but in strong examples, such as Oak Mass and the dyptich Quantity of Sky. Morgan is a painterly master. These pieces manage to affect you both as evocations of nature’s wonder and as sheer, hedonistic painting. Works like these convey the zeal of his enterprise; it is there in the very physicality of the paint. Because of this, we’re led to say, “Yes, this is early modern French art revisited, but it counts also for today.”
Morgan’s approach is prudent, almost fool-proof. He allies the ferocity of Van Gogh and the conceptualism of Gaugin and some of the discordant color of Derain and Vlaminck. The effect can be tough and marvelously “unlovely,” stunning without being picturesque. This is exhilarating to see.