The paintings that Salomon Huerta has produced over the last few years are cool, stylized and distinctly anti-personal. The portraits reveal his subjects only from the backside--mostly men with closely cropped or shaved hair in rigid, mug-shot-like poses--while a series of impenetrable suburban facades is rendered blandly in flat, artificial tones. Both series emphasize that the subject is unknowable. They raise questions of political identity--racial, social, geographic--but refuse to placate the viewer with comfortable, personal answers.
Considering his past work, Huerta's new exhibition in the project room at Patricia Faure Gallery is a surprising turnaround. Each of the dozen or so graphite drawings features the face of the same woman, resting horizontally on an undefined pillow and tilting confidently toward the viewer.
Unlike Huerta's previous subjects, this woman--whose name, according to the show's title, is Ione--has distinct, personal and unstylized features: intense, almond-shaped eyes, full lips and long, black hair that piles around her on the pillow. Her gaze is so potent and self-possessed that it seems to erupt from the page, persistently evading, even battling, Huerta's own artistic agenda. If the earlier work is characterized by a self-conscious degree of restraint, these drawings, faithful records of an obviously cherished face, betray an almost helpless compulsion.
They are extremely--even uncomfortably--intimate images that position the viewer in the role of the lover, presenting intricate details at close range and charting every subtle shift in expression, every gaze and cloudy reverie, with tireless fascination. The repetition of the nearly identical images encloses the viewer like a blanket of memory--a single frame from a home movie played again and again. One can almost hear nostalgic music playing in the background.
In addition to the obvious differences between the previous work and the new, there are also striking continuities. Central to both are questions of access, of how intimately one might presume to know the subject of a portrait, how fairly one might judge and evaluate another through the other's image.
In the earlier portraits, Huerta pointedly denies the viewer access, for political reasons, by presenting his subjects in an inscrutable manner. In these, it seems that he himself has been denied by the very personal complexity of the subject he has chosen. Despite the intimate nature of the drawings, Ione remains hauntingly unknowable.
Patricia Faure Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through Saturday.
Foreboding: Daniel Richter's new paintings, on view at Patrick Painter Gallery, are large, brashly colorful and profoundly unsettling--though it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Based on found press photographs, they are basically figural works that would seem to describe particular events, but most of the individuals involved are faceless, the spaces are ambiguously defined and the narratives obscure.
In one, three figures huddle beneath a towering apartment building, as if recovering from a jarring street incident or conspiring to initiate one. A male figure falls on his back in the foreground of another, while two more figures watch ominously in the mid-ground, near what looks like a dead horse. Both images reverberate with a sense of urgency that goes unexplained.
The works do make sense, visually and conceptually, but through a kind of nonsensical logic. Perhaps because Richter was an ardent abstractionist until only recently, he seems to put less stock in the narrative potential of images than in the emotive qualities of color and texture. Thus, the logic of the current work resides not in the compositional formulations but in the paint itself: in a palette that is shamelessly but not gratuitously psychedelic and a style that is loose but forceful and aggressive, cluttered with random splatters that look like battle wounds acquired in a turbulent studio.
At the same time, the introduction of spatial illusion and basic figural elements seems to have had a liberating effect on his work generally, ventilating his formerly flat, dense compositions and lending direction to his potent painterly energies.
The expressive power of Richter's paint comes across most assertively in his figures, which are not portrayed as real human beings so much as quivering masses of color. They radiate in waves, as though captured on an infrared photograph, and their faces are skeletal, which gives the work a creepy science-fiction flavor. In one particularly unnerving image, several reddish, faceless creatures stand and crouch like curious but perhaps malevolent aliens around a young boy sleeping in a glen of trees. The daunting sense of impending violence that laces through these and the other works, perhaps more poignant to an American audience now than it might have been a few months ago, lingers long after one leaves the gallery.