Brushes With Reality 

Donald McFadyen

at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, through October 11

Jeffrey Kamberos

at Ann Nathan Gallery, through September 27

Ben Mahmoud

at Sonia Zaks Gallery, through October 7

By Fred Camper

Sometimes it seems as if the only artists who actually depict things are the really bad ones. Abstraction was the product of high modernism, which taught that a painting shouldn't create illusionistic imagery but be true to its material, a flat canvas. Postmodernism bombards us with images, but none of them pretend to "truth"--the point is that all imagery is relative, and as a result everything is seen through layers of ironic distance. Meanwhile bad artists go about painting their flowers and nudes as if the last several centuries of art had never happened.

In different ways and from different angles, however, artists unaffiliated with any movement but very far from naive have been seeking approaches that acknowledge the contradictions and paradoxes of illusionism without going to the postmodern extreme of abandoning all forms of belief. Donald McFadyen, Jeffrey Kamberos, and Ben Mahmoud all incorporate irony and doubt in their art, which is also filled with melancholy, yet they haven't abandoned a belief in the redemptive power of painting--even if it can give us only a heightened sense of what we've lost, or never had.

McFadyen's 15 paintings at Zolla/ Lieberman--copied from movie stills and photographs he finds in books and magazines--often focus on background details; he carefully reproduces lighting effects but sometimes alters faces or eliminates figures entirely. Capturing the high-contrast look of black-and-white film noir, his work suggests a passionate commitment to each fold of clothing, each dramatic highlight. But while a number of artists appropriate movie stills with a smirk, McFadyen's mixture of precision and delicacy suggests that he really believes in the world whose illusions he represents.

Cloud Break, depicting a man slumped at his cluttered desk, has the look of a memento mori, but its drama is more explicit. Given the way the man's body is supported only by his armpit on the chair, I looked about for a gun; a bottle with a dark liquid perhaps holds poison. McFadyen based the painting on a photo of a Nazi mayor who killed himself as the Americans approached at the war's end, but part of the work's power comes from not knowing its source. "I like the ambiguity," McFadyen told me; citing Hitchcock, he told an interviewer that "you can create drama and suspense through lack of information." Searching the desk for clues, one finds official-looking stamps, a calendar, a pencil--objects that suggest the man's life much as William Harnett's and John Peto's 19th-century trompe l'oeil arrangements of objects suggested unseen narratives: death is echoed in Cloud Break's chaotic assortment of clues. The painting's ur-cinematic drama is heightened by the suggestion that the figure was moving not long ago--his severe slump underlines the contrast between past and present.

Film viewing was one of McFadyen's key childhood experiences. Born in Glasgow in 1960, McFadyen was watching foreign films on the BBC by the time he was 12--Visconti, Truffaut, De Sica. That he watched them partly for their nudity and suggestions of sex doubtless heightened their impact. Coming from an artistic family, he later went to art school in Scotland, then moved to Chicago, where he still lives, to attend the School of the Art Institute. Today McFadyen mentions influences as diverse as Fassbinder, Schiele, H.C. Westermann, Velazquez, and Brueghel.

Like Cloud Break, Talking Dream takes an oblique overhead perspective that's less that of a person than of a camera, suggesting alienation from the scene. It depicts a surgical operation, with white-suited masked figures clustered around an unseen patient; nearby are a table, an IV bottle, and a basin on the floor. The dramatically shadowed folds in the figures' hospital whites and the pool of light amid shadows give the event an authentic urgency even as we guess it's a copy of a staged scene. As in McFadyen's other paintings, there are hints of color: the tiny fragments of faces we see are dark tan, the fluid in the basin is a murky brown. But this colorized-photo look has little of the decorative, manneristic quality one usually associates with hand tinting.

Instead, McFadyen's meticulous detail, dramatic lighting, and hints of color give such scenes a drama greater than is usually found in black-and-white photographs and movie stills. The basin on the floor wouldn't likely have the same power in a still photograph, though it might in a movie. There we would perhaps see the doctors using it to drain the patient's blood before placing it on the floor. Objects in a movie can be dynamized in various ways, as when they're seen in close-up, then reappear as static props in a later composition. Similarly, film edits between different perspectives on a scene take the viewer around a space, and each new image affects our perception of later ones. The touches of flesh color on the doctors' faces give them the kind of life they might acquire through close-ups in a film scene.

Curiously, the dramatic effect of McFadyen's paintings requires no knowledge of his sources. In fact he himself doesn't remember the origins of some of the 10,000 or so photographs he's collected. When he does, the knowledge doesn't necessarily affect him. Talking Dream was painted from a black-and-white still from the 1946 Pressberger/Powell Stairway to Heaven, yet McFadyen's version--which omits the central foreground characters--is more suggestive of film noir than of that color extravaganza. Nor does he remember the source of the still he paints in Even the Knife Looked Good, an inviting but frustrating work that shows a couple talking on a stoop, the man standing in front of and largely obscuring the seated woman, while a few more figures are visible through the doorway.

We can't see the faces of the figures in the foreground or know what they're talking about, while the scene inside, colored a warmer hue, is seductive yet mysterious. One longs for the multiple perspectives of a movie, in which various images taken inside would reveal more of the story and action. But McFadyen's painting is partly about what it denies us, making a virtue of the limitations of his approach. Just as we cannot see the conclusion of the operation or the life of the officer before his suicide, so here we cannot know the relationship between the couple. Ultimately McFadyen both gives life to the rich emotional coloration of film and acknowledges the spectator's inevitable distance: even a film viewer is ultimately a voyeur who cannot enter the action. If the events McFadyen depicts are more involving for being unexplained, their enigmas also remind us of our inability to fully participate.

At first glance the bright colors, cartoonish figures, and pop-culture subjects of Jeffrey Kamberos's 16 paintings at Ann Nathan couldn't be more different from the restrained near monochromes of McFadyen's work. Yet both take media-made images as their sources, and both find a mix of emotional authenticity and alienation in the worlds they construct. Both seem to desire a more comprehensible world, though they know it's impossible. But instead of McFadyen's gentle, poetic puzzles, Kamberos gives us a universe spinning out of control, perched on the brink of apocalypse--where it's normal for a Kool-Aid pitcher with arms and legs to walk happily through a cluttered landscape, and for a giant Moses to be seen on a drive-in movie screen in the background.

Born in Chicago in 1955, Kamberos told me that Vermeer (who he says "invented this little magical world out of nothing") was a key painter for him. Yet Vermeer's mood of silence is the opposite of Kamberos's. He also acknowledges Bosch, Magritte, Brueghel, Japanese art, animated cartoons, and comic books as formative influences; in high school he drew comics while on LSD. Not even Bosch gives us such wildly improbable combinations of figures: Kamberos dates his present direction as a painter to the mid-80s, when "I felt these little creatures in me and said, 'I'm going to have to paint these things.'"

Many other artists portray mass culture as hell; what differentiates Kamberos's work, like McFadyen's, is the strength of his technique. One feels the real presence of Henry Kissinger's head as he looks toward a giant red skeleton, and the vividness and conviction with which Kamberos renders all the other figures makes the overall chaos more powerful.

In fact, each work is built up of many layers of paint. Though he attended two art schools, Kamberos says, "I learned how to paint out of this Italian painting book from 1580. All their paintings are built up from layers." But the Italians were unlike Northern Renaissance painters like Van Eyck, whose pure, translucent colors would mix in the viewer's eye: "The Italians...would apply opaque colors so thinly that you never lose the effect of the layers under them." Kamberos's use of the same technique gives his figures their peculiar power: though lacking the mystical depth of Van Eyck's, they're far more supple and resonant than cartoon figures, inhabiting a space between the flatness of pop images and the depths of old master modeling.

The initial effect of Kamberos's paintings is befuddlement. Artist and viewer are passive spectators on a world that seems to rush toward us at overwhelming speed even as it disintegrates. It's as if one were at the mercy of mad visions--but themes emerge despite the chaos. In Eternal King Rat different worlds collide in a highly theatrical setting. It features a flatly painted woman taken from a traditional Japanese woodcut--like McFadyen, Kamberos can't always remember his sources--sitting next to another woman, based on an old master, whose flesh is carefully modeled. Other elements--cartoon figures flying through the air, smoke rising from the sea--add to the chaos, while the whole scene is framed as if on a proscenium stage by a large white drape on one side and a hanging Japanese wartime flag on the other. Meanwhile the ocean in the background is obviously painted on a flat--one can see the women's shadows on it. In Kamberos's work our culture is always on show, its characters always posing. Some of his most frequent subjects are objects intended for display: packaged products, paintings, media celebrities, nudes, and fantasy automobiles.

While occasionally his figures approach or touch one another, more often they pose as if oblivious to everything around them. They are clueless narcissists, strutting about on a stage they don't notice is collapsing. The show's strongest work, the triptych Twilight in Babylon, is a wildly explicit depiction of this disintegration. Behind Frank Sinatra, whose drink seems to be sprouting images from a ghostly movie, struts a miniature Picasso carrying a bizarre figure based on one of Picasso's renderings of his mistress Dora Maar. Behind them, on the roof of a building housing a topless club, is a singer in red pants and striped jacket ready to perform, while nearby a cartoon character in checkered pants rises into the air to serve a hamburger--and this is just in the left panel. I won't even try to account for the even denser center piece, which is framed by dual halo-surrounded "Archie" heads (our modern savior?), except to say that Kamberos makes one feel that the volcanic eruptions and falling bombs in the background are fitting retribution for this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, in which everyone wants to be looked at but almost no one looks at anyone else.

Ben Mahmoud's 17 restrained, even intellectual vanitas-like paintings at Sonia Zaks display few of the pop-culture influences so evident in McFadyen and Kamberos. But as in their work, some piece of the world the artist loves is presented as irretrievably alien. Where McFadyen grounds that distance in the condition of the movie viewer, and Kamberos in a culture gone mad, Mahmoud sees it as an inevitable consequence of life itself.

Mahmoud combines still lifes of sliced or peeled apples, depictions of what look like pieces of cardboard armor, and phrases (seen in the titles and on the paintings themselves) expressing connections between truth and illusion, pretense and art making, pretending and thinking. Though he composes these sayings himself, he then translates them into Latin. Praesidium Simulatio Est ("Protection Is a Pretense") is a diptych whose left half shows us nine sets of real metal head armor, each bruised as if in battle, while on the right we see an apple with a wedge cut out of it. The apple is "protected" on one side by the battered and broken pieces of cardboard Mahmoud often paints to represent the human figure or clothing; these are copied from an old cardboard dress form someone gave him. Mounting images on identical, side-by-side panels tends to equate them, and here Mahmoud seems to be saying that all the artifacts we may design to protect ourselves must yield to the knife in the end. He makes similar points in other pictures, pairing cut-away apples with elaborately clothed figures or with a diagram of a fort.

Born in 1935 in Charleston, West Virginia, Mahmoud has taught since 1965 at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb. His Lebanese father spoke English awkwardly, and he grew up aware of his and his family's outsider status. His father had a small grocery business, and he recalls being fascinated by the labels on the fruit boxes as a child, by their colors and diverse illustrations--a mysterious system he couldn't completely decode. A key college experience was an introduction to literary exegesis by a professor who explicated The Waste Land. These experiences perhaps survive in the symbolic systems--diagrams, texts, metaphorical objects--in the present paintings; significantly, Mahmoud would have preferred not to have offered his original English titles, which appear on the gallery checklist.

The apples, Mahmoud told me, are a reference to the Adam and Eve story. "I think all the paintings are about the expulsion myth--it's a myth about what happens in each of our lives the moment that we become aware of our own mortality. We know we are going to die, yet we can persevere, because of our ability to pretend. I've come to feel that there is an arbitrariness to meaning, that all meaning is simply a construct of our game of pretend." While the specific shapes--the particular arrangement of a dress form or cut of an apple--may be arbitrary, there's an underlying meaning that remains constant: the inevitable susceptibility of living things to time.

This vulnerability is presented most movingly in Sperare Humanum Est ("To Hope Is Human"), in which three vertical panels present identical views out a window of a twilit sky with a comet. On each sill, above mysterious fragments of text Mahmoud copied from a Tibetan astrological manuscript, an apple sits, tied by a rope that goes to the top of the frame. The apple in the left panel is intact, the center apple has a slice cut from it, and the middle of the one on the right is mostly missing. While the obscure texts below suggest layers of esoteric meaning, one idea is clear: where nature, represented by the unchanging sky, is eternal, human time passes quickly, each moment more diminished than the last.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Cloud Break" by Donald McFadyn; "Eternal King Rat" by Keffrey Kamberos; "Praesidium Simulatio Est" by Ben Mohmoud.

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