Questions of Distance | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Questions of Distance 

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Arnold Mesches

at Gwenda Jay/Addington, through February 10

Renata Palubinskas

at Byron Roche, through February 16

By Fred Camper

Though the art world is often obsessed with newness, exaggerating or extending established styles can produce powerful and even unique results. The bold, assertive brush strokes and intense, often confining compositions of Arnold Mesches's 23 recent works at Gwenda Jay/Addington are reminiscent of German expressionism. But he also lists among his important influences Goya, Brueghel, Ben Shahn, and Daumier.

I've seen the Brooklyn Bridge--a frequent subject in painting--rendered more lyrically and more abstractly than it is in Mesches's The Bridge. But I'm not sure I've ever seen it look so confining. Centered on one of the towers, this symmetrical view of a walkway includes a forest of cables, adding to one's sense of a tightly constricted space. More than a formal exercise, the painting also shows a man with two children at the lower right, figures who seem both confined by the bridge and outside its structure, wandering members of some excluded class.

Like a number of other paintings in the show, this one is based on an old family photo; the figures, Mesches told me, are his grandfather and two cousins. Born in 1923 in the Bronx, Mesches grew up mostly in Buffalo, New York; spent much of his adult life in Los Angeles; and now lives in Manhattan and Puerto Rico. His father was an eastern European Jewish emigre and his mother the child of Jewish emigres. During the Depression the family fell on hard times and were forced to move; Mesches remembers his father then as a door-to-door buyer and seller of old jewelry and gold.

Visitors to Mesches's Los Angeles studio used to call him "a New York painter," he says, but there's an oddly European feel to The Gate, informed by Mesches's first memory of death: a child at the bottom center is dwarfed by three adult figures, a hearse, and an ornate entranceway. The scene is covered with snow, which outlines the tree branches; together the lines of the branches, the gate, and the hearse form an almost impenetrable network, a world the child cannot hope to understand.

This exhibit is part of a much larger touring show--over 100 works--that will be presented in April at the Castellani Art Museum in Niagara Falls, New York. Mesches, whose work is usually informed by history, has had a long involvement with leftist politics that began with his participation in a late-40s Hollywood strike, when he was working as a storyboard painter. And historian Howard Zinn, one of the catalog essayists, puts Mesches's work in the context of the last half century's political upheavals. But most of the works on view here focus less on class struggle than on the way the stuff of the world impinges on consciousness.

Read for Knowledge Wall, an installation made up of one large painting flanked by 12 small ones (there were more, but some have been sold), could easily be a pomo essay in the power of media were it not for its 30s setting. In the large painting a young boy at a newsstand is surrounded by pulp magazines and novels; the painting is based on Mesches's memory of "looking at the dirty pictures on the way to Hebrew school. They were not only pornographic--they were scary as hell." One can see what he means from the publications, shown individually in the smaller paintings, all based on old pulp covers: alongside standard detective magazines are books like Ladies in Hades.

Whereas the boy in the central painting is dwarfed and seemingly oppressed by his surroundings--his head hanging a bit, hands in his pockets--the figures on the covers seem posed to best thrust bare flesh forward. Mesches accentuates this motif by giving their skin bright highlights; sometimes a face is almost all white. Bringing the covers to colorful life, he makes his figures glow amid the darker backgrounds. Mesches studied advertising design in college before discovering fine art, but by exaggerating expressionism's use of color and line he gives these grabby images an emotional dimension: this impossibly lurid world doesn't merely attract one's attention--it seems to take over.

Mesches uses understatement to equally powerful effect in Because I Love Nice Things; a billboard ad for gloves supplies the title, and two movie billboards set the scene either in the 20s or 30s. A woman stands on the street in front of a gas station wearing a long, dark dress with a bodice as red as her shoes. Mesches's palette is mostly dark and subdued, but almost every color has some shade of red or pink, from the sky to the dark cars behind the figure, and her pose between two posts and below the billboards creates the sense that all the color in the painting is flowing into her. Though Mesches based the figure on a photograph of his then-teenage cousin "trying to become a young woman," as he told me, the deserted setting with its many commercial messages suggests something he didn't consciously intend. This lone figure standing on the street in front of a gas station with no apparent purpose might also be a prostitute.

While Mesches exaggerates or understates expressionists' subjective use of line and color to heighten emotion, accentuating the clash between his figures and their settings, Renata Palubinskas seems primarily inspired by late medieval and early Renaissance painting. Using glazes "to obtain different textures of the objects, to create depth of shadows and shines of the light," as she writes in her statement, she produces images that have an otherworldly silence. If Mesches emphasizes the individual's messy engagement with the stuff of the world, Palubinskas's eight recent paintings (two are triptychs) at Byron Roche convey an almost sublime distance from life.

Green Hills I shows a girl in profile looking upward. The ornate pattern on her dress is painted with the precision of an early-15th-century master, and her face has the suppleness and porcelainlike inscrutability of a painted saint. A strangely regular cloud pattern covers the sky, and the circular opening in the clouds that admits the sun's beams looks almost surreal. The girl's relationship to the abstracted landscape of green hills that surrounds her is also a little peculiar. While it's true that the perspective in early-15th-century painting is often off, here the figure is so much bigger than the land she stands on that she seems a giant. These odd variations on an older style create disparities that can't be easily resolved. Though early Renaissance figures are often somewhere between icons and flesh-and-blood humans, Palubinskas's girl is strangely anonymous and removed. And while bare, often symbolic landscapes are common in 15th-century Italian painting, Palubinskas pushes sparseness to an almost modern extreme.

Born in Lithuania in 1968, Palubinskas moved to the United States in 1993 and now lives in suburban Detroit. Her artist's statement offers a clear key to her paintings and worldview: "I just want to show how unstable and multilayered this dualistic world is. Happiness and prosperity are always followed by suffering and poverty, day goes into night, life ends with death and vice versa....It is like a dream, changing every minute....Reality that we are now experiencing is like a drop of water on a hot sunny day." The strange elements in Green Hills I do in fact place the viewer in a shadow world between physical nature and a surreal spiritual realm.

Even Palubinskas's treatment of a conventional subject in the triptych Adam and Eve creates distance and raises questions. I overheard one gallery visitor observe that, from Adam's pose, it seems he too could be offering an apple. The antinaturalistic regularity of the Tree of Knowledge is echoed in the clouds above it. And the three paintings are much farther apart on the wall than is customary in Renaissance panels, undermining the viewer's sense of a narrative connection.

The young angel in Taming of Evil literally has the devil by the horns, but she doesn't seem very enthusiastic about it, nor does the devil seem especially upset: his body is contorted but his face is calm. She looks away from him as if she were thinking of something else and could hardly feel the horns she's holding. While the bare hills in the background recall early Italian painting, her look is midway between that of a wise angel and a confused baby-sitter. Yet there's something genuinely compelling, if not totally realized, in Palubinskas's mix of modern alienation and supple spirituality, the residue of a time when ambiguity in painting was used to heighten rather than question belief.

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