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ART REVIEW : Figure Painting With an '80s Spin

November 30, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

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 Old Masters galleries in the great museums.

But the work on view, with Olivia S. Anastasiadis serving as guest curator, 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. "The Beckoning," for example, is an elaborate piece of kitsch garnished with art deco-y wood flanges. Featured players are pert-profiled cuties holding luminous globes, firm-bodied guys--one bows with a flourish, the other is arrested in mid-jump--and a pink-fleshed nude woman curled uncomfortably between them.

Historically, the reason certain paintings were executed in peculiar shapes was because of their location--over doorways or fireplaces or on wedding chests or altars. But Lavender seems to have invented 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.

In "Allegorical Landscape (Philosopher Lecturing on Social Responsibility)," an elder whose outstretched arm looks, for some reason, as if it doesn't quite belong to the rest of him addresses three distracted youths. One casts his eyes downward, another looks away and the third gazes out blankly at the viewer the way students do when the tiniest thing interrupts a dull class.

Ligare entertains the eye with an ample expanse of scenery: a huge tree, leaves glinting in the sun, a rosy-fingered dusk sky and a sprawling red-roofed building that could be the palatial home of some California magnate.

But the didactic part remains halfhearted in this Eric Rohmer-style approach to moralism. Instead of presenting some specific issue he wants us to get socially exercised about, Ligare--like the French film maker--offers a highly stylized, "talky" scene with pretty visuals. 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 sort of religiously tinged sci-fi universe in which 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 a limited range and 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 very different conundrums surrounding the human figure.

In "Jessica in Front of a Painting," a young woman in a studiedly neutral pose (hands in pockets, eyes cast down) stands in front of a large blue architectural drawing of columns, arches, steps variously modeled in light and shadow or left flat and unarticulated. An undeniably large-scale presence, she is as mutely lacking in personality or affect as a concrete column.

But 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 themes like "Mexican Masks/Corinthian Order," in which crisp curls of foliage on the capital of a Corinthian column and other muted architectural designs are foils for the exotic intensity of a pair of brightly colored masks.

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.

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