Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, May 26, 2008

Viewing notes on Durham and Donovan

If I can get my act together, I’m going to put together a long review of Erika Johnson’s piece at the Parthenon, but there’s some other things in the way of viewing notes I wanted to get out of my head.

I did a review of the Library’s Works with Words show in last week’s issue of the Scene, and I think it made me tune into words in other things I’ve been looking at. This was the case at Bob Durham’s show at Cumberland. I guess people consider Bob a photo-realist, although I’m not sure what that would mean today. If that label applies to Bob it’s because he paints figuratively with clear detail, and probably because of the quality of light in the paintings.

Bob has two kinds of work going. One is a series of paintings of sock monkeys, posed with props of various kinds, playing out a joke or a pun. Then he has paintings taken more from everyday life, usually portraits, often in a domestic setting. I prefer the portraits, but the sock monkeys are really popular. I think the portraits show his depth much more, and they have plenty of humor—not quite as obvious as the sock monkeys, but it’s there. Lately I’ve been thinking maybe I’m missing something, that the market has recognized the brilliance of these paintings. Certainly Dave Hickey would tell me that’s what to look for. Maybe these paintings stand out as a more distinctive body of work. For now, I will in a self-satisfied way insist on retaining my state of ignorance, and hold onto my preference for Bob’s portraits.

For me the show was dominated by the painting “Maestro,” which shows a middle-aged guy holding forth in a kitchen, standing over a bunch of shiny sauce pans, waving a spoon in one hand and holding a scotch in the other. I picture it as this guy, pretty well lit, whipping up his special dish, maybe gumbo or something, for a bunch of guests. It looks like he’s got every pan in the place out—a chef who is more energetic than efficient.

So you’ve got this guy engaged in a kind of domestic performance where he’s the center of attention for some clutch of unseen guests. But the real performance is Bob’s, who shows off and pokes fun at himself at the same time. Not only does he capture this particular male character in full flourish, but all those shiny metal plans give the painter a chance to show off his skill managing the reflections, like the bit of green reflected from the subject’s shirt. Photorealists made a career of hard, shiny surfaces, and the amount of metal here is practically a parody of the style and its pursuit of virtuosity. Of course, it goes back much further. Painters have always enjoyed showing off with reflective surfaces—look at the water goblets Pieter Claesz (this is "Still Life with Roemer, Tazza, and Watch" from 1636) preferred, the base covered with convex bulges that gave him even more surfaces to play with. The same pleasure in technique inspired other painters who took every chance they had to include delicate lace.

The painting has other tricks up its sleeve. This is where the words come in. In the foreground, the word PYREX is visible in clean red letters on a clear glass mixing bowl. But look at some other places where you would expect to find words—the labels on bottles of scotch and ginger ale. They are smudged, completely indistinct and illegible. You could argue that these bottles are blurred because they are more in the background, but the scotch bottle is positioned pretty close to Pyrex bowl. While the painting looks “photorealistic,” it really isn’t. Bob is varying it up when it comes to choices about what details to include, and how sharply to limn each one.

Just to confirm this artistic editing, turn to another painting, “12:01 A.M. This one shows a broom propped up in a nook in that wall, next to a pair of woman’s shoes. The wall is rendered in a lovely mix of almost iridescent color and has the shadow of a chair hitting it. On the floor there’s a can, and the label shows a pumpkin, but the part of the label that would include the brand name and the name of the product (pumpkin pie filling?) is blank. No blurry words, but just an empty, blank white spot. The picture of the pumpkin tells you enough about what it is, so Bob leaves out the rest. The can convinced me, if there was any doubt, that the contrast between the blurred labels and the word PYREX in “Maestro” were not perspective effects, but explicit artifice.

It makes me think there are other ways this artifice would come out if I spent more time with the painting, or if I knew more about anatomical rendering.

The other thing I wanted to mention is John Donovan’s sculptures at the Renaissance Center in Dickson. Everything (I think) in this show is unglazed, just the red fired clay with some black soot smudges, which makes the pieces seem like archaeological artifacts. He has several warrior figures with the extended earlobes of pre-Columbian art brandishing spears, but wearing un-ferocious rabbit headdresses. Other pieces are outfitted with guns and modern weapons. Donovan uses all sorts of glaze techniques in his work, sometimes the opposite of this, thick and gooey like cheap tourist trinkets. I guess this isn’t the first time I’ve seen these unglazed pieces, but this time they made me more aware of how conscious Donovan is of the history of his medium. Ceramics have been around for a long time, into prehistory, and continue in use in our daily and commercial culture. It’s very common material, and it lasts, so it provides strong connections among human life across the ages. With Donovan it seems like all of that history of the material is present at one time or the other, and the material gives me a way of thinking about the long course of human history.


  • Are you attending the group exhibit from the David Chatt residency at Vanderbilt tonight? 6 pm at Tibbott Gallery . . .

    By Blogger Ciona, at 7:36 AM  

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