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Critic's Choice

Review: Ben White's paintings embark on a wild ride through history

August 15, 2013|By David Pagel
  • "Roosevelt Refuses Participation in Propitiatory Child Sacrifice to Moloch," by Ben White, acrylic and enamel on panel, 42 x 35 inches.
"Roosevelt Refuses Participation in Propitiatory Child Sacrifice… (Monte Vista )

History, it’s often said, is written by the winners. If that task fell to the nut jobs, the world might be more interesting. High school textbooks would certainly be more entertaining.

At Monte Vista, Ben White’s new paintings treat history as a swirling stew of possibility, a kind of primordial ooze filled with more twists and turns than a pretzel and more wacky coincidences than a conspiracy-theorist could make sense of.

Ten midsize panels line the gallery’s walls. Each depicts a historical figure or two, at a time and in a place they may never have visited. Inexpensive vinyl letters, stuck on the walls beneath each juicy painting, act as captions.

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The first, “Roosevelt Refuses Participation in Propitiatory Child Sacrifice to Moloch,” sets the stage. The painting above it is even more preposterous. In convincing detail, it shows exactly what the caption describes: a very young Theodore Roosevelt, dressed in a coonskin cap, handing the flaming Canaanite idol a bear cub.

In the foreground, an unoccupied drum kit and a man dressed like Elmer Fudd complicate the already insane storyline, inviting all sorts of speculation, the more outlandish the better.

Each of the nine other paintings carries on in this vein. In one, Liberace gets thrown to the lions and appears to channel the prophet Daniel, who escaped death because he never stopped believing. Others star 19th century outlaws Tiburcio Vasquez and Ned Kelly, folk hero John Henry, a 5,000 year-old mummy named Otzi and an Etruscan deity from the underworld. James Franco, Jeffrey Deitch and President McKinley play supporting roles, along with assassin Leon Czolgosz.

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And that’s the tip of the iceberg. A kangaroo, a Taco Bell restaurant and a jetliner add even more intrigue, which is intensified by White’s paint handling, particularly his capacity to mix and match techniques and styles like nobody’s business. It’s a wild ride that begins with Wikipedia and goes as far as the imagination can.

Monte Vista Projects, 5442 Monte Vista St., through Sept. 1. Open 12-5 Sat. and Sun.; www.montevistaprojects.com.

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