If solo shows of work by Wayne Holwick, Sylvia Shap and Channa Horwitz at the Municipal Art Gallery have anything in common, it must be the compulsion to make art.
For Holwick, this need is a passion. No matter how troubled or flawed his painting, it never appears unfeeling.
As a young artist in the late '60s, he worked with a team of muralists and developed a Photo-Realist style in works on canvas. In the earliest example at the Muni, a 1970 black-and-white painting called "Motorcycle," we get a king-of-the-mountain view of a bearded man with his Harley-Davidson. At that point, Holwick was compelled to get all the details right, and he proved himself an adroit painter.
But in that stark piece of realism--and even more in an ominous 1972 canvas, "Waiting for Lazarus (Self-Portrait With Friends)"--his work is infused with the edgy emotional tone of young men who see themselves as outsiders.
The Holwick show lurches along in fits and starts (partly due to an unfortunate installation), but it's easy to see that the artist soon stopped fussing around with Photo-Realism and went for raw emotion. He loosened up in an expressionistic style and turned out some pretty bad paintings that are often unforgettable.
A few of these works are relatively soft, dreamy images of women in landscapes that seem to recall a happier, more innocent time in the artist's life. But tension builds here too, particularly when nude sunbathers are pictured upside down and titled "Meltdown."
The bulk of work in Holwick's exhibition spins out of art history and religion, and it can be deeply disturbing. His self-portrait as a Rembrandt-like subject in a red turban has a spectral presence. With his washed-out complexion and blurred eye sockets, the artist is terrifyingly mortal. But he has a mission, symbolized by the paint brushes he clutches.
The most dramatic recent work is "The Last Temptation of Christ," a blatantly sexual depiction of the sins of the flesh that's certain to offend both Puritans and feminists. According to a printed statement, Christ has traveled "to the end of the Earth, represented by Zimbabwe, and in a simple dwelling (Satan has) confronted him with the classic temptation in the form of a harlot. . . . The Devil waits patiently in the background at the end of Vermeer's great marble hallway while the God/man side of the Lord contemplates the temptation."
The Zimbabwe setting doesn't make sense--the only visual key is lettering at the bottom of the painting--but the image of a black silhouette stonewalling a white woman who displays herself like a flower garden is gripping. Holwick has an uncommon talent, and it's good to see him showing his work after a long absence.
Shap's compulsion is rather like the one Holwick left behind. She draws and paints portraits so realistically that we could identify the subjects anywhere. Shap means to get them right and she does--at least so far as the details of their clothing, jewelry, unruly hair and lopsided grins are concerned. She tries for their personalities too but rarely gets beyond symbols of taste or offers more than a glimpse of their psyches.
When an attractive woman identified as Nanci giddily grips a chain around her male partner's neck, an aged woman clowns around in sweat shirt and panties or a young man displays his tattoos and nipple rings, Shap introduces a kinky element, but most of her subjects look like upscale folks posing for the camera. With their collaboration, she takes numerous photographs and chooses one to enlarge to near-life-size. She then positions the image on a solid-color background, generally leaving a dramatic expanse of open space.
The results are quite dazzling, but they hold up better individually than in quantity. Though each person is different--in hundreds of physical details--the people become design elements in a colorful parade of signature paintings. New works featuring Indians (encountered on a trip) offer a note of encouragement. These portraits follow the same format, but they seem to move toward emotional expressiveness.
Seen alongside Shap's and Holwick's figurative paintings, Horwitz's compulsion for art-making seems almost relentlessly intellectual. She uses numerical systems to create line drawings that resemble charts, diagrams for fabric designs or video patterns. Pristine and extremely complex, they are generally more interesting to think about than to look at.
The artist's printed statement says she uses movement and change to "show a continual flow of rhythm" through "repetition and linear variation." It's not easy to figure out some of her systems, though the repetitive quality yields a satisfying unity and variety.
The exhibition includes six series. "Sonakinatography" works (named for sound, motion and notation) employ a system of eight counts (represented by colors) on graph paper to suggest movement of time in space. "Sonakinatography Expanded" deals with squares of increasing size, while "Slices" reduces them to their essence.
In "Crescendo," Horwitz takes sequential shapes from "Slices" and layers them into new structures. "Flowings" turns eight basic shapes into wing-like forms, and "Moire" lives up to its name by producing moire patterns with diagonal lines. Like many other works in the show, they offer an optical buzz, but the most intriguing aspect of this art is that anyone has the tenacity to continue to work it out in seemingly endless permutations.
The exhibition continues through July 10.