Reacting perhaps to the facile imagery and received information of the mass media, many figurative artists have turned to narrative dislocation and ambiguity as a means of restoring psychological and compositional tension to painting. Eric Fischl is probably the most well publicized in this field, and has inevitably spawned a number of would-be clones. Bay Area artist Ken Durkin is a prime example; his sun-drenched beach scenes of alienated bathers clearly attempt to counterpoint the apparent physical idyll of "paradise" with the intangible Angst of isolation and non-communication.
The difficulty here of course is that by making "ambiguity" the central focus, the subject literally cancels itself out. Ambiguity cannot be manufactured; it must be read out of a viable combination of metaphors and signs. Instead of creating an open text, where the viewer becomes an active participant in decoding a labyrinth of complex information, Durkin simply gives us a blueprint of pictorial mechanics. Each visual element merely calls attention to itself as a structural contrivance, and as a result the narrative collapses under its own rhetoric.
In Durkin's case, this consists of such well-worn alienation devices as featureless faces, often hidden behind a snorkel mask or turned away from the viewer; couples who stare off in opposite directions; and a horizontally stacked, flat-picture plane that isolates each character spatially and denies the illusory focus of a contexturalizing mise en scene . Unlike early Fischl, where sexual and psychotic undercurrents are expressed through an edginess in the painting itself, Durkin opts for a reductive style that attempts to create drama through repetitive form and homogeneous light. Instead we are more conscious of the awkwardness of the paint handling, adding further distance to an already unconvincing thesis. As in most works that live and die by the force of narrative, once the manipulations of syntax and language are made plain, we are simply left with empty gestures. (J. Darraby, 8214 Melrose Ave., to Nov. 6.)