Aradia in L.A.

Irina Cumberland, Stone Warm, oil on copper

From today through the 19th, Arcadia Contemporary is offering what is essentially an international survey of representational art from 13 different countries at the L.A. Art Show. The catalog for work available from this one gallery is astonishing. The Arcadia booth is nearly an entire exhibition in itself. The range of work is purposefully narrow in one sense, driven by Arcadia’s adherence to the dictates of its own largely dark, figurative esthetic, but I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of artists and variety of work, the way Arcadia has located, in so many different places around the world, exactly the sort of painter it chooses to represent. The Arcadia catalog rivals the international painting annuals produced by Manifest Gallery, with over 500 pages of artwork offering around 200 paintings and drawings. It’s an impressive act of curation and offers what must be the fruit of endless research to locate exactly the sort of painter the gallery seeks from Korea, Nigeria, United Kingdom, United States, Spain, Israel, France, Cuba, Japan, Australia, Russia, Ukraine, Spain, and Poland.

When I last visited the gallery in SoHo, Steve Diamant showed me his most recent discovery, one of the paintings in this show from a female Russian painter he’d recently discovered. He said he almost always seeks out the artists he shows, not the other way around, without divulging exactly how he tracks painters who fit into the gallery’s esthetic. It’s a category of work hard to pin down precisely because it depends on his own individual sensibility. There’s just a touch of Weimar Republic in some of this work, the mordant air of the cabaret. But he also shows bright, ecstatically affirmative almost wholesome paintings of simple, familiar things and situations from painters whose vision is anything but sceptical. He said the work he wants is frequently beautiful but never pretty, though some work in his catalog could be considered quite pretty—except that the adjective seems to have joined sweet and nice in a ghetto of paradoxical pejoratives. (Wait long enough and someone will start a Make Pretty Great Again movement.) All of which is to say the work he selects is often visually and morally or emotionally dark, limited in its range of color, often nearly monochromatic. What a few of his artists depict verges on the decadent, even depraved, and there’s a theatrical and implicitly narrative quality to what he likes, something he prefers to call cinematic. Staged drama would be my description, and clearly some of the work is painted from scenes with models costumed and posed for the painting, with all the drawbacks and all the undeniable impact of that kind of artifice. Frequently, the images imply a backstory through these posed, stylized subjects, and some work verges on illustration or fashion shots, yet most of the paintings remain challenging because they almost always have a quality Gaston Bachelard called oneiric—being both real and unreal at the same time, sometimes hyper-real, but in a way that tips the portrait or scene beyond the range of mundane daily experience into a slightly disquieting state of surreal or haunted dream. That pretty little girl in bright colors has a lizard on her shoulder. There are bees gyrating around the flower in another girl’s hand. The rugged and handsome older man with the gray mane has a stiletto pump aimed at his nose like a gun. That quaint little town has a massive tornado approaching from the distance. The roller coaster is, hm, well it’s on fire! Much of this work feels equal to the eschatological mood that seems to be the dominant tone of the media about nearly everything now: the world just keeps either dying or ending, if you watch the news often enough. Yet the tone of the work Arcadia shows is quietly poised just this side of its own existential dread, balancing there, the way Hopper did with the subject of loneliness in his single figures in urban, dense populations.

In this vein, the work that least appeals to me, in terms of my personal taste, but most impressed me in the way its conscious limitations give it power is from another Russian: Alexander Timofeev. Like so much of what Diamant selects, his color is so muted as to be almost absent, but in his cropped images of faces, the moribund skin tones are perfect for the warped, moral universe on display. At a different level, his paintings read like a gallery of the vices, but without Giotto’s clear delineation of one vice from the next in his own Early Renaissance sequence. The most stunning one, Secret, shows two women, one gazing up with addicted desire at a glittering clutch purse, dangling by its strap from the hand of the other witch-like figure. The temptress is dressed in a red robe (a robe that reappears in another painting, Slave ,of someone smothering the head of a man, visible in relief through the red fabric that wraps around his head like molten plastic pressed onto a mold of a face). It’s a world as weird as Macbeth, as morally ill as the Marquis de Sade, and yet the remarkably detailed realism in the faces and hair transcend allegory, reminding one of Christian Seybold’s 18th century portraits, even though these are far darker in spirit and tones. Yet, the context for all of them is established in the title of the catalog’s penultimate painting, The Tenth Commandment, a simple image of an older man’s hand grasping the limp wrist and hand of a very young woman, who in her submission appears to be either dazed or drugged.

Dark in imagery, but completely different in spirit and worldview, are Stephen Fox’s marvelous night scenes of drive-in movie screens beneath a sky during an electric storm. The convergence of what is essentially a screen capture of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back with illuminated storm clouds over the pines that flank the screen and the audience of people sitting in front of their cars at night: the scene is irresistible and breath-taking, partly because the expansive Romanticism of the image gets undercut by the irony of juxtaposing a big rectangle of luminous pop culture that looks trivial against nature’s infinite sublimity. The effect is to make what’s depicted feel like an image of the perfect family night out: summer warmth, lightning and thunder without any rain, a fantastic movie, civilization having reached a sort of apogee of balance between old-school film projection, CGI, a population with leisure time on its hands and the loveliness of nature itself, all of it painted with astonishing skill. You look at Fox’s paintings and think we aren’t such a terrible species after all and the world has never been a better place to be.

Matthew Cornell’s two contributions to the catalog are just as beautifully done as always, but these two scenes are more enigmatic than his previous ones, which were often painted during the “golden hour” after sunset, before dark. These are at night, little structures with a single light shining down, painted in a way that looks a bit looser than in the past, until you realize they are only eight inches wide. The tiny scale demands more generalized brushwork. One has a more consciously imaginative touch: a second glance at that one-way sign behind the windowless building and you realize it says Hope. These tiny paintings are one of Arcadia’s signatures: the smaller the work, more he’s interested. Diamant has assembled here some of the miniature work he regularly exhibits and sells. For example, Stephen Mackey’s fey oil-on-panel portraits of rodents dressed as infants in frilled collars are only three inches square. It’s hard to imagine smaller artwork, other than of course sculptures inside the eyes of needles.

Cuban artist Darian Mederos contributes portraits of sensuous female faces, eyes closed and alluring, but he lets you view them through bubble wrap. The distortion it affords would seem gimmicky and coy, as if to suggest you’re spying on these sultry women though a wall of warped glass blocks, imaginatively completing the picture on the other side, until it’s clear the regularity of the grid created by the bubbles points back to Chuck Close with his later grid paintings and Alyssa Monks, when she was doing portraits of faces seen through droplets of water on glass. It’s a balancing act between soft porn and a simple exploration of a different way to examine how visual perception works. Plus, of course, a smart way to recycle all that surplus bubble wrap left over from shipping artwork to collectors and fairs.

In a completely different mode, with the most emotionally upbeat work in the catalog, Tim Rees depicts women, some solitary, others with a child in their arms, as well as a Norman Rockwell-esque boy in pants and loose suspenders, standing at low tide along the ocean or the Gulf. The scenes are lovely, one might be so bold as to say even extremely pretty, with low sunlight, sometimes at sunset, but without any of the kitsch sentimentality, or at least Pre-Raphaelite drama usually inevitable with paintings of beautiful women standing near water. These are simple, realistic transcriptions of what’s already beautiful and casually, accidentally wonderful in and of itself in daily life, full of light and color, a sharp departure from what would seem the Arcadia creed but perfectly at home with the rest of the work in the quality of its vision and execution.

The most abstract of the paintings are also at least as hyper-realistic as the most detailed work in the show, the swirling, undulating essentially color-field compositions of Irina Cumberland, one of the gallery’s Ukrainian painters in the show. Her large oil-on- copper paintings capture the dance of light on what would appear to be rippling tropical water. Paintings of light on water are plentiful, if you search for them, but these are carefully composed in such a way that they may be the best and most lyrical I’ve ever seen. Stone Warm is a fantastic abstraction: blues, violets, greens, and yellowish olives swirl in unpredictable ways, reverberating toward the top of the canvas, erupting from beneath, all of it balanced and yet in constant motion. It’s an amazing painting, the sky reflected in such a way that you can’t quite recognize anything in the water until you notice and realize that the row of huge river stones along the top of the canvas anchor the image in reality, snap it back from abstraction. What a joy it must be to paint these canvases: what must be weeks of arduous, painstaking accuracy leading up to the way in which the finished painting seems a perfect image of spiritual liberation.

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