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Postmodern Primitives 

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Jose Cobo: New Works

at Maya Polsky Gallery,

through October 15

Leslie Wilkes: New Paintings

at Lyons-Weir & Ginsberg,

through October 5

By Fred Camper

A s our culture becomes more diverse and its contradictions multiply, it seems harder and harder for artists to present a unified, coherent view of the world. Whereas older artists balanced ambiguous and contradictory elements as part of the path to an integrated statement, many younger artists don't feel the need to resolve their works' divergent directions. Jose Cobo's 40 sculptures at Maya Polsky and Leslie Wilkes's eight paintings and three drawings at Lyons-Wier & Ginsberg don't merely contain contradictions--both artists weave their art around seemingly opposing impulses: the works' split natures are key to their expression. Both exhibits have a kind of eye-popping, over-the-top quality; Cobo's row of nude satyrs with partial erections and Wilkes's loopy portraits of women and butterflies seem removed from the realm of art that can be sensibly, logically analyzed.

Cobo's works are defined by their visual contradictions. The six painted aluminum Musical Satyrs, complete with cloven feet and fleshy human torsos, have a certain fierceness, with their dark legs, roughly textured skin, and mildly aggressive poses. But since each stands on a brightly colored wheeled cart, they're also somewhat ridiculous: can these creatures not walk on their own? Lined up in a row they seem like objects in a window display or toys on a shelf.

The two painted bronze figures standing side by side in Man and Woman in a Cabinet recall Renaissance paintings of Adam and Eve, but displayed behind the glass panels of a wooden cabinet, they're also like knickknacks in a bourgeois home, decorative objects defused of any iconic power. Yet like the satyrs, the man and woman retain a certain odd edge: with their nude rough skin they have none of the empty prettiness of a commemorative plate. Nor can they be visually integrated with the cabinet, any more than the satyrs can be with their rectilinear wheeled bases. It seems entirely possible that one viewer might feel the atavistic power of myth in these two works while another thinks of issues of commodification and display.

Another way of describing Cobo's contradictions is to say that he juxtaposes a self-reflexive, postmodern presentation--placing fine art in a cabinet, satyrs on wheeled carts--with a predisposition toward the "primitive." Like Redon's wonderful evolution-inspired drawings of strange half-human beasts, Cobo's figures include creatures of his own invention. But his theme is often less evolution than devolution: by seeking out the primitive in the human, Cobo seems to suggest we're regressing. The painted aluminum monkeys on a shelf in Evolution seem to be developing from left to right, from walking on all fours to walking erect to one carrying another on its back. But at the end we see two monkeys lying in pieces, limbs severed. The suggestion is that the last pair fell to the ground and fell apart--that our race's ancestors failed to make the next step.

Born in 1958 in Santander, Spain, Cobo recalls his childhood impression of the region's Paleolithic cave paintings as "haunting, powerful" and sometimes almost photographically realistic. As a child he also had an interest in animals, eventually working on his own private "book" about them. He went to Madrid at 17 to study architecture, then came to Chicago in 1984 to study at the School of the Art Institute, where he now teaches. In Madrid he discovered Spain's baroque churches, whose lack of hierarchical organization appealed to him: "There are many little chapels--you don't know which one is the main one, you can get lost." Of the painters in the Prado, Cobo names Velazquez, Goya, and Picasso as influences. His description of Velazquez also suggests his own work: "Velazquez's sense of reality is so strong that it brings you to another ground. His art becomes almost surreal--there are many planes of existence combining. There is this kind of mysticism, but he's so realistic you can identify with the images. You see the heavens, but they are not transcendent because you also see the flesh."

Cobo's Rhinotaur, a fanciful combination of the rhinoceros and the Minotaur, is blatantly surreal. Made of wax and about the size of a man, it has a horned rhino's head and reclines with knees raised. The wax gives the flesh a certain depth--gray discolorations appear to lie beneath the surface--and it has some of the power of a nightmare beast. But nestled almost comically between its legs is a human vagina. This weird figure doesn't so much seem a hermaphroditic blend, however, as a collage of incongruous elements that simply leaves one scratching one's head.

Seen in the context of the show, Rhinotaur is apparently another node in the processes of change Cobo sees as evolutionary and devolutionary at once. Rather than present humans as the highest life form, in the manner of Velazquez's portraits, Cobo seeks to acknowledge our animal nature. His dogs are at least as noble as his humans. His Narcissus of the Well is far from the beautiful youth of traditional depictions, as rough-skinned as the Rhinotaur and with similar gray splotches. Narcissus, angled downward at the edge of a metal cylinder as if diving into a well, is straight and stiff as a board, conveying a sense of movement--toward his inevitable death. Cobo compares his work with contemporary figurative art--"Lucian Freud, Pearlstein, Bacon"--pointing out that "many artists weren't happy with humankind and distorted the body. But if you look at my pieces you see that while they are vulnerable because of the skin, the proportions are right, almost canonical." His mix of creepy surfaces and correct proportions--the human scale of Rhinotaur, for example--gives the work its dual nature as both artist's fantasy and comment on humanity.

Three related human figures suggest an array of possibilities. In Running Forwards a small figure perched on one foot appears to be advancing, while the man in Running Backwards appears to be retreating. Cobo says that these two together assert that "we have to be very active, no matter what we believe. Even if somebody may defend going backward in time, he still has to run in order to impose that idea." The effect of the two sculptures together is to assert that neither direction is better than the other. In a third, Other Man, the figure is stationary, seemingly contradicting Cobo's own statement by suggesting that static introspection is also possible. For Cobo, man, woman, human, beast--all are legitimate poles. But his point is not to integrate them, to produce an expansive view of human possibilities, but to juxtapose them in disturbing ways, suggesting that in the end he really doesn't know what to make of the world's vast array of choices. Just when you think you've "gotten" one of his works, a peek between the legs destabilizes your interpretation and your vision.

When I first saw Leslie Wilkes's paintings I wondered if they were just plain bad. She certainly challenges what's acceptable in a fine-art setting, painting lush glamour girls surrounded by beautiful butterflies and sometimes foliage. My first reaction was "What was she thinking?"

But when I looked at them longer they redeemed themselves. For one thing, they're carefully and skillfully painted. The large green leaf at the center of Swallowtail Swoon and the flesh of the woman behind it are of subtly varied hues, and an irregular luminosity seems to emanate from both. The pale woman in Q-T is almost overshadowed by the bright blue butterflies in front of her, but her skin is painted with such delicacy that her paleness becomes a kind of lightness and she almost floats. Tiny, eccentric details give her a specificity that prevents the scene from becoming too Edenic: her toenails are painted red, and she holds a cigarette. And it's clear from Olive Garden--in which the light from the lush green foliage around the woman never diffuses its greenery to her skin, as it might in an impressionist's work--that these are the artist's constructions rather than naturalistic depictions of some fantasized paradise.

Wilkes's statement offers an evocative description of her work: "Frolicking frauleins and their beguiling bugs are the hybrids of purity and titillation....These wholesome images of sexual allure are like Disney-ized pinups, a crossbreed of soft-porn and Snow White." But like Cobo's hybrids, Wilkes's crossbreeds are not seamless. One viewer might find them alluring, another purely silly--or the same viewer might have these reactions at different times. Wilkes has pushed pictorial cliches about women and nature to an extreme from which there can be no recovery: her skill and the appeal of her subjects make it impossible to reject such cliches out of hand at the same time that the absurdity of blond glamour girls as "earth mothers" distances us from the usual myths.

Actually the paintings have a couple of autobiographical dimensions, as I learned after speaking with Wilkes, a School of the Art Institute graduate who now lives in San Francisco. Born in Atlanta in 1962, she grew up near Athens, Georgia, in "a development that hadn't been very developed. My sister and I used to ride our bikes a lot. There were weeds that grew right at the curb, and we'd pull dead butterfly wings out of those. I've always been sort of a tomboy--kind of attracted to that feminine stuff, but I never did quite get it." In these works she feels "as much distance between me and the model as between me and the bugs." In fact the butterflies are generally in front of and often more vividly colored than the women.

After high school Wilkes worked briefly as an art-class model, "just as a job," an experience that, together with her childhood interest in insects, perhaps influenced these paintings. There she "started getting the itch to draw again": listening to the teachers' instructions, she says, "I could feel myself drawing in the shape of my form. Once I did start doing figure drawing it felt very sculptural to me, and I sort of attribute that to being on the other side of it as a three-dimensional being." Yet she copied the figures in these works from fashion magazines and old movie posters.

One could perhaps trace the contradictory aspects of Wilkes's work to her life: she's neither a proscriptive "thou shalt not depict" feminist nor an antifeminist, and she doesn't pretend to be completely articulate about this aspect of her art. But I suspect their unresolved quality also reflects the deep fissures in our culture. Magazine glamour girls are wonderful and ridiculous at once, as are various cliches about nature and femininity. As we're increasingly bombarded with diverse images and contradictory conceptions of what's human, artists respond with work that is about its own unresolvability. There is no single correct reaction to Wilkes's pictures, except perhaps to feel uneasily divided. How else to take her comparison of two yellow butterflies with a woman's light yellow breasts in Buttercups?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Musical Satyrs" by Jose Cobo/ "Q-T" by Leslie Wilkes.

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