Go Figure at Spruill Gallery
Burnaway, February 24, 2009
By: Ben Grad
Perhaps it’s best to call Spruill Gallery‘s “Go Figure” an exploration of the human form, amputated. The six artists who make up the collection depict their subjects uncomfortably close and (just as uncomfortably) contorted. A sense of unease pervades the gallery, from Meyer and Mazza’s rough-painted surfaces to Brian Novatny’s tumbling picture-perfect suburbanites.
Chin-Cheng Hung‘s pastel portraiture is heavily influenced by photographic technique and Chinese wuxia films. Courage is atypical of his work at Spruill—Hung’s other pieces, like Besiege or Riding the Waves, show robed figures, presumably blurred by the speed of their motion, performing feats typical of wuxia: running across water or parrying a dozen blades with one sword stroke. As in wuxia film and literature, these actions mirror a complex interplay between a protagonist’s will and the physical world. Though Courage seems out of place, even conventional, compared to the rest of Hung’s pieces in “Go Figure,” its placement and title choice suggest that it is also acting within the wuxia tradition. While Hung’s other images use physical action to suggest mental strength, Courage balances mental exertion—the act of remaining courageous—against the consequence of that mindset. This is the epic battle our protagonist will inevitably fight.
Jenn Mazza paints portraits from photography—generally self-portraits, but she occasionally uses models. Even in their painted form, these portraits retain a sense of their photographic origins: they use a photograph’s physical dimensions, and provide a sense of exploration and physical closeness (between Mazza and her model) which would normally make for an extremely uncomfortable portrait modeling session.
Speaking with other attendees at the opening of “Go Figure,” I wasn’t surprised to hear Mazza’s work constantly cited as a favorite. Mazza’s selectively puckered and scarred canvases are hard to forget—especially in the winter, when our skin is at its most vulnerable. The fragile paint skins of Mazza’s models expertly mirror the invasiveness of her zoomed-in perspective. These pieces are fantastic examples of an artist who has developed several interrelating techniques, all of which support the main thesis of her work.
At first glance, Joshua Meyer‘s heavily impasto’ed paintings are reminiscent of Willem de Kooning, but with more focus on details of his models’ stance than background or portraiture. Meyer’s models sit isolated, slumped against a wall or forward on their chairs, blending more psychologically than visually into their surroundings—at least if you’re looking at them from the correct angle.
Viewed from across the room, these pieces become Magic Eye tapestries, while at a hands’ breadth away you’re left with stacked swatches of muted color. There’s a sense of satisfaction involved in finding the optimal viewing angle and distance for Meyer’s work.
In a 2005 review of Brian Novatny and Fay Jones, Gary Faigin writes:
Brian Novatny and Fay Jones create what I’ve dubbed—for lack of a better term—Puzzle Pictures. A puzzle picture is one which, in spite of the artist’s employment of a realistic style for the depiction of individual objects, it’s clear from the outset that no obvious storyline or idea holds the various pieces together, pieces which often float, overlap, and interact in an undefined space. The artist’s underlying motivation for the particular arrangement of people, trees, cars, buildings, clouds, mountains, etc. is left mysterious (the titles are usually unhelpful), the better to engage the viewer. What the picture means for the artist themselves, and what it means for the viewer may be two quite different things, and for most artists, that’s perfectly alright. The point is to create an intriguing visual experience, a sort of image tango in which the artist invites us to engage.
Yet I don’t feel engaged by Novatny’s work. Certain elements (using Faigin’s terminology, “puzzle pieces”) of his work are intriguing, like the blue tinted woman in the upper left hand side of “Patricia Apprehensive,” or the man copied three times on the painting’s bottom right border … but I don’t feel any need to connect these pieces.
Perhaps Novatny doesn’t want the viewer to engage his works as a whole. Perhaps the fragmentation of small scenes on a largely empty canvas is meant as a metaphor for modern life. Perhaps, in wondering why I’m not more affected by Novatny’s work, I’ve completed the puzzle he has strewn across his canvas.
“Go Figure” will be on view at Spruill Gallery through Saturday, February 28.