What if this nasty old world could be remade into a clean, pure, noble place to gladden the heart and lift the spirit?
"Contemporary Humanism: Reconfirmation of the Figure," at Cal State Fullerton's Main Art Gallery through Dec. 10, presents four California-based artists who use their figure-painting skills to put an '80s spin on the kind of story-telling, moral-pointing canvases that fill the great museums.
But the work on view, guest curated by Olivia S. Anastasiadis, offers a disappointingly sterile view of humankind.
Randall Lavender does a Maxfield Parrish turn in formats that look as though they were made to accommodate architectural nooks and crannies. Featured players are pert-profiled cuties holding luminous globes and firm-bodied guys.
Historically, the reason certain paintings were executed in peculiar shapes was a function of their location. But Lavender seems to have adapted his odd frameworks simply as a gimmick to corral his crew of young bodies into decorative groupings. Although he writes that his "subtext" is "the dignity of man," the paintings offer about as much substance as calendar art.
David Ligare also paints handsome young men who might be UCLA athletes decked out in togas. Billed as ancient Greeks, they arrange themselves in carefully orchestrated poses in the harsh, raking sunlight of late afternoon.
Ligare's didactic part remains halfhearted. His work suggests some as-yet unresolved form of conceptual art, slipped awkwardly under the skin of old-fashioned history painting.
Jon Swihart uses the narrative possibilities of traditional painting to cook up a religiously-tinged science-fiction universe where a buxom nude encounters a man camped out at an abandoned shrine, a child falls under the spell of a vegetation god or folks out for a stroll find a sleeping hermit in a landscape charged with symbolism.
Because the figures wear ordinary sports clothes and the detailing is so meticulous, the viewer can accept a Ray Bradbury-esque vision of ordinary life suddenly taking a strange turn. The paintings exude a studied sense of wonder, yet the no-nonsense crispness of their style also gives them an essentially one-dimensional impact.
John Nava is a draftsman at heart. But his evident fascination with the mysteries of the drawing process and the evolution of design does not seem to extend to the human figure.
In "Jessica in Front of a Painting," a young woman in a neutral pose stands in front of a large blue architectural drawing of arches and steps. An undeniably large-scale presence, she is as mutely lacking in personality as a nearby column.
Why go to the trouble of painting figures if you toss away everything that makes them tick? Nava would do better, it seems, to stick to still life themes like "Mexican Masks/Corinthian Order."
Gerald Ackerman's catalogue essay for the exhibit suggests that the four artists' approaches represent strong alternatives to "the realms of despair, alienation and violence" that characterize other kinds of contemporary figure painting. But something is missing. The serene masterpieces of art were created by artists capable of convincing the viewer of their deep understanding of the human animal, not engineered as blandly soothing solutions to the messiness of real life.