George Billis Gallery
A recent show (April 17–May 29, 2010) at George Billis Gallery in Los Angeles juxtaposed three very different contemporary realists, demonstrating once again that monolithic definitions of this complex movement are largely unrewarding. The most interesting work on display was by Jorge Santos, a technically accomplished figure painter with a propensity for enigmatic narratives laced with a dose of irony. Largely self-taught, Santos immigrated to the United States after growing up in politically unstable Angola and Lisbon, Portugal. A cool, anxious sophistication pervades his oil-and-acrylic paintings. Empty (2009), an overhead view of a chicly dressed young woman lying across a yellow highway line, could be a shot from a David Lynch movie. The way she lies—diagonally across the four-foot-square canvas, legs pulled up at a sharp angle—creates a dynamic, disorienting pinwheel composition. The title could refer either to the red, sculpted form of the gas container at her side or to the mannequin-like smoothness of her alabaster skin. The chill of her long legs and expressionless yet curiously aware face suggest an elegant Audrey Hepburn gamine crossed with a Flemish Primitive princess.
A number of Santos’s pictures feature jockeys in surreal settings very far removed from the racetracks of Degas. In Jockey (2010), an emaciated rider, naked to the waist but wearing his cap, recoils from an inquisitive horse, whose velvet nose and liquid eye have an uncanny beauty, against an alpine backdrop. In Jockey School (2010), the figure is younger but still pale and scrawny. With a faraway look in his eyes, he gestures toward a blackboard covered with chalk diagrams. The most immediately appealing of the works on display is Book Worm (2009). A pretty but intense girl, crowned with a towering wimple, grips a book with angular, expressive fingers. The setting is a rainy landscape with the curiously vivid light of a re-emerging sun. A rain-puddled road curves off into the distance, and the green leaves of the tree above her have an enameled clarity. It’s a lovely yet provocatively bizarre image, a window into the artist’s idiosyncratic imagination, an alternate reality.
The other two artists at George Billis are realists in more straightforward, less metaphysical ways. They focus on the visual possibilities of mute objects in daily experience. Santos seems perfectly comfortable working in an allegorical idiom. For Chris Wright and Adam Normandin, a certain no-nonsense respect for the facts seems to be a principal painter’s virtue. Wright, born in Oregon, now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. In his current series, he limits himself to a simple subject, fish displayed in Styrofoam trays, and variations on a simple composition, setting the rectangle of the tray within the rectangle of the picture. The color palette is equally restricted—off-whites and greys with blushes of rose-pink. He has expressed his admiration for the bodégon paintings of the Spanish old masters, and Wright shows considerable skill in capturing the sheen and texture of glistening scales in Catfish and Red Snapper (both 2009). Red Snapper is the most colorful of the paintings on display, with shimmering blue highlights against ripe pink flesh. Setting the tray at an angle to the frame energizes the composition. He brings some of the Spanish artists’ heartfelt respect for foodstuffs to the overly clinical product displays of the American supermarket. Still, it would be interesting to see him attempt more ambitious compositions, combining flesh, vegetables, bread and vessels. Velázquez, Meléndez and Sánchez Cotán raised that kind of still life to the heights of art.
Moving down the chain of being from human to animal-as-food to inanimate metal, the Billis show arrives at the work of Adam Normandin, born in New York but now based in California. There are affinities to the photorealists in his taste for what he calls “purely functional” subjects, especially trains and industrial machinery. Usually frontal, his presentations of train yards resolve themselves into almost abstract boxes of color, marked with numeric codes and graffiti in a jazzy nod to Stuart Davis. Yet Normandin remains a realist, recording the effects of rust and weathering on metal surfaces and adding shadows that create a sense of illusionistic, if shallow space. In Corridor (all works 2009–10), we look between cars on the near track to the parallel row just beyond. In Keeping Watch, a close-up of wheels looks startlingly three-dimensional in steely blue-grey. Companion, in blue and brown, features metal bars that cast strong shadows, implying forceful sunlight. The head-on compositions are more successful than a conventional highway landscape like La Raza. Two rather more ambitious paintings find some poetry in freight trains. We see a bit of landscape around the primary yellow car in Rise, vivid against a brilliant blue sky, with a reflection in a foreground puddle forming a kind of predella. Crispomage is a diptych that works as an unexpectedly decorative mural, centered by industrial wheels at the bottom. An exuberant ribbon of blue and pink graffiti allows the artist to combine painterly gesture with his boxcar geometry. George Billis Gallery, 2716 La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90034. Telephone (310) 838-3685. On the web at www.georgebillis.com