John Pence Gallery

Travis Schlaht, Still Life in White, 2008 John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, California

The fall line-up at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco includes a trio of contemporary realists; all work in a variety of genres but seem especially comfortable with still life. Starting off the season was a painter who is a convert to the academic approach. Tony Curanaj began as a graffiti artist in New York City and created designs for Disney, Nike and Viacom before taking up traditional studio courses, at Jacob Collins’s Water Street Atelier and then the Grand Central Academy of Art, where he is an instructor. His impeccably finished surfaces demonstrate his mastery of technique. The most straightforward of his still lifes, Coffee Grinder and Book (all works 2009) angles the old book and wooden apparatus to create geometric forms in sharp light. A strong diagonal shadow breaks up the backdrop and lifts this above the level of a studio exercise. The addition of curvy forms in Still Life with Golden Apples—especially the swagged fabric that picks up spidery shadows from some branches in a vase—gives that composition an attractive sculptural quality. As with a lot of good contemporary realism, however, such paintings seem like warm-ups for some hoped-for main event. In this show, the main event is Red, a straight-on table top showpiece that juxtaposes a Chinese bowl and an old tin canister, a dish of apples, an ornate old frame and a gumball machine. A gold-embossed tablecloth and a scarlet drape give the color-coordinated ensemble an old master setting, but Curanaj throws in a little pop culture wit. Tony Curanaj’s paintings were on view September 11–October 10, 2009.

Exhibitions by Travis Schlaht and Jacob Pfeiffer follow at Pence. The balance between mimesis and painterliness is a perennial issue in representational art, and these two artists illuminate the question through their different approaches. Schlaht, who also studied at the Water Street Atelier and teaches at the Grand Central Academy of Art, can put together a fine still life in the old master style. Merienda (2008) is a handsome sideboard composition focused on a leg of lamb, hoof and all, displayed in a metal brace. The color palette has a rich, subdued patina, dominated by various reds: the flesh of the joint, a slice of ham on a white plate, the almost-black wine in bottle and glass. The knife jutting out over the marble table top into the viewer’s space is a classic perspective device. Schlaht maintains a convincing illusion of objects in three-dimensional space with some consistency, but, in other images, he tends to assert the physicality of the painted surface with thick brushstrokes. In Merienda, the viewer remains at a distance from the elegant still life. Lobster (2008), a straightforward portrait of the crustacean, has a more immediate painterly presence, the fluid medium coagulating to form the hot-red lacquered shell, silver salt and pepper shakers and a cool yellow cut lemon.

Schlaht takes painterliness even further in two “white” paintings, descended from a series of modernist experiments: Whistler’s portraits of women in white, the snowscapes of Claude Monet and George Bellows, the abstractions of Robert Ryman. By this point, the trope has lost its aura of fashionable daring, but limiting the palette so radically remains a worthwhile exercise. Texture comes to the forefront in Schlaht’s Two Glasses (2008). The spindly, cast-iron café table with its bottle and glasses seem carved out of the impastoed wall, both backdrop and painter’s ground. Still Life in White (2008) is a more elegant and complex image. The viewer’s awareness of the brushstrokes is subsumed in the light-filled objects that materialize on the canvas: white plates and silverware, a matte-white egg in a silver egg cup, a clear balloon snifter. Schlaht works in several genres. Shepherd (2009), a half-length portrait with background sheep, is handsome enough, and it’s interesting to see the mottled grey-taupe he uses for backdrop walls repurposed as sky, but the still life remains his strong suit. Schlaht’s exhibition was on view October 16–November 14, 2009.

Jacob Pfeiffer is an illusionist fond of punning titles. His smooth surfaces disguise the virtuosity of his trompe l’oeil tradition technique. Sometimes, as in New Idea (2009), the painting seems mostly to be a pretext for cleverness. The lightbulb floating above a head, in a time-honored comic book trope, is one of those ecology-minded new fluorescents. Family Heirlooms (2009) depicts stems of red and green tomatoes on a ledge. The weight and succulent color are a pleasure to the eye and don’t really require the parlor trick of a jokey title; the same holds true for Graduation (2008), in which the tomatoes are arranged according to size, and Mt. Ranier (2009), a pile of pale cherries. This sort of playfulness may work best when it tips over into surrealism, as it does in Still Life with Pairs (2008), which features saddle shoes dangling from a rod over two pieces of fruit. Pfeiffer’s paint-handling is sleek enough to hold the viewer’s attention in the limited circumstances of these oil-on-panel works, but it would be interesting to see him try more ambitious compositions. Pfeiffer’s work will be on view November 20–December 19, 2009. John Pence Gallery, 750 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94109. Telephone (415) 441-1138. On the web at www.johnpence.com

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2009, Volume 26, Number 4