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The Borrowers 

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John Wilde

at Perimeter, through November 14

Aaron Smith

at Ann Nathan, through November 20

Holly Greenberg: Bodybuilders and Beauty Queens

at Lyons Wier, through November 7

By Fred Camper

Because style is an expression of the time and place that spawned it, slavish imitations of past styles tend to look mechanical and inauthentic. But John Wilde and Aaron Smith--who borrow from earlier periods of European painting--inject a genuinely modern doubt into their evocative, often enigmatic work. Holly Greenberg, on the other hand, borrows from commercial art of the recent past to produce work clearly rooted in the specifics of contemporary culture.

Wilde's main influence is the Northern European Renaissance, visible in the loving precision of line and detail of his 13 works at Perimeter. But whereas van Eyck and DŸrer used sharp-edged renderings to express their faith, Wilde's paintings are often troubled. In Running a young girl moves down a corridor bouncing a ball. She's nude, and though the corridor's gentle surfaces are cleanly chaste, the hallway is decidedly vaginal. The floorboards are rendered so precisely the grain is visible, and the girl's skin is far from idealized, a blend of various flesh tones with hints of venous blue. But the gentleness and delicacy of Wilde's colors and surfaces, perhaps reflecting his work in egg tempera years ago, separates him from van Eyck and DŸrer. The girl seems alive but also ethereal, almost floating, an impression reinforced by her stride and the fact that the ball she's bouncing is in midair.

Wilde, 78, has lived most of his life in the Madison area; a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, he also taught there for 32 years. Early in his student years he became acquainted with surrealism--Dali and de Chirico as well as Madison painter Marshall Glazier and surrealist-influenced Chicago painter Gertrude Abercrombie, who were friends of his. What distinguishes Wilde's work from Abercrombie's and Chicagoan Julia Thecla's is the way his precise lines and textures give his strange creations an air of almost irrefutable objectivity. Homage to Brother Leslie III is a landscape containing a flying pig and what appears to be a dinosaur behind distant hills. The land between a foreground tree and the hills is painted with uncanny sensitivity: sensuously detailed and smoothly receding, it creates a mysterious feeling of depth. And once the landscape seems a continuous space, the dinosaur becomes more a hyperreal apparition than an idle fancy.

Oh, Wow! reflects throughout the eroticism of its central image, a man in Renaissance attire sitting on a horse and holding the leg of a nude woman seated beside him. A man in the background sports an erection and a woman holds a phallic sword while a cock crows in the foreground; the featureless orange land seems a hotter version of nude skin. In romanticism the overall style of the painting expresses the artist's emotion, but here the things depicted echo the painting's central erotic moment. We also sense that the picture depicts a fragile instant: just as the girl in Running is captured mid-movement, so the situation in Oh, Wow! is clearly transient.

Indeed, there's a memento mori quality to much of Wilde's work. "I continually sense the tentativeness of all things," he writes in his published journals, available in the gallery. In a 1984 lecture, he said that art establishes "that the world is in every aspect and prospect infinitely beautiful," though "I...am only destined for illness and death." Wilde's sense of life's fragility is mirrored in his style. While his precise lines and surfaces make the physical world palpable, the thinness of his paint makes his images seem illusions, moments that threaten to fade as soon as they're seen. He renders the eponymous vegetable in A Glass of Wine and a Levitating Turnip in exquisitely loving detail. But its "pose"--hovering mysteriously over a table--makes no sense unless one believes that objects can suspend themselves in midair, at least until the inevitable fall.

At 33 Aaron Smith is a generation or two younger than Wilde, and he takes his inspiration from a slightly more recent period--17th-century painting, especially Caravaggio. Using strong side light, Smith dramatically illuminates flesh in his ten paintings at Ann Nathan. But though the figure in the two-panel Slovenly Peter looks a bit Christlike at first, none of these pictures is explicitly religious. Smith is inspired instead by Victorian verses written for the moral instruction of children, which also give him his titles--"The Little Glutton," "The Cry-Baby." Even without knowing the verses, the viewer can see that the judgmental tone of some of the titles contrasts sharply with the sensuality of Smith's figures.

Smith doesn't paint as well as Caravaggio--practically no one does --but the ambiguities of his enterprise are fascinating. The young man of Slovenly Peter is divided between the two panels, which are somewhat separate from each other, a device that tends to make images seem artificial and incomplete. At the same time Peter's overgrown, curling fingernails and stringy hair combine with the curving branches of a stump behind him to make it look as though he were growing into a tree. Nature here is at once disturbing and dirty--in keeping with the title--but also alluring in its wildness and unruly lines. The hair just beginning to appear on Peter's chest both links him to the tree bark and suggests an age long celebrated in homoerotic art.

Smith traces his current style, now nearly a decade old, to two key events. When he was in his mid-teens, he saw a Caravaggio painting in a traveling exhibit in San Francisco, near his family's home: it seized his attention as soon as he entered the room. "Obviously the light was the main thing," he told me, "and the monumentality." But also, he says, "Christ had been represented many times--there were certain standardized ways of showing him. But this felt like a portrait. He was a man first, he wasn't a type. You identify with him as a person and feel real emotions." About a decade later Smith came out, admitting to feelings he'd only barely acknowledged: "In a weird way, Caravaggio"--thought to have been homosexual--was "a way of accessing" those feelings. Immediately Smith began painting on a larger scale: "I had this new sense of independence I'd never had before, which helped me to be honest in my work."

Smith uses friends as models in these moral tales, covering his pictures with a varnish more reflective than anything that survives on Caravaggio's work. The thin layers of his paint and the varnish's sheen give his figures an intense physical presence, but they lack the apparitional magic of Caravaggio's figures. Indeed, Smith flirts with kitsch in these skillful exercises in historicism. At the same time, his subjects have an individualized authenticity that belies both easy imitation and the moralistic titles. The figure in Tom Bogus: The Sweet Tooth reaches toward but looks away from some fruit--passion fruit--on a plant spilling down a wall. This is a divided figure, wanting yet doubting, clutching at the world and lost within himself. Smith's figures are often divided in this way, perhaps reflecting his long period of isolation as a closeted gay man.

A few flies sit on Tom's bare, muscular, heavily shadowed back, qualifying the painting's homoerotic edge: the flies add a disturbing suggestion of uncleanliness or disease--a reference, perhaps, to AIDS. The verses on which the painting is based describe a boy who craved sugar, gobbling it up until his whole body was covered with a "sticky slime" and "the flies flew about him in scores." Eventually his body turned to pure sugar and washed away, and "the pigs and the dogs ate him up in the gutter." The first line describes Tom as "naughty" without saying why--and it's easy to see a metaphor here for society's prejudgment of gays.

Smith would like his pictures to appeal to all of us, however, pointing out that the difficulties he experienced are felt by others for different reasons. And there's nothing specifically gay about Pauline and the Matches, in which the figure sprawls on the ground pointing toward the small fire she's lit but looking away--another divided consciousness beset by conflicting desires. While the ground is indistinct, her bare foot is smudged with dirt, a detail I found particularly moving: Smith relocates a tale meant to convey a moral truth in the messy everyday world, not the universalizing landscape of allegory. This Pauline has tread at a particular moment over a particular soil--she's not a featureless actor in a morality play but a person who's had unique experiences.

Holly Greenberg's five paintings at Lyons Wier reveal the different results when an artist's source is contemporary. A 31-year-old Chicagoan with extensive experience as a printmaker, Greenberg recently moved into a space formerly occupied by a fitness store called Bodybuilder and Sportsman, where she found a large collection of 50s physique magazines. Struck by the feminine poses of these muscle men, she made paintings based on the photos: the "beauty queens" of the exhibition title is doubtless a pun.

Echoing 40s and 50s poster design, Greenberg's painting lacks modeling and depth and their attendant spatial complexity. The ambiguity of her work is instead conceptual, coming from her combination of word and image, a domain she has long explored in her prints. Fastest Snatch shows a silhouetted weightlifter holding a barbell against a light blue background filled with even lighter blue circles, as if it were wallpaper or gift wrap. Reflecting with a wink and a smile the circular outline of the barbell, these circles turn heaviness into lightness, masculine power into baby-blue disks. A long, heraldic banner curls around the figure, with the words "fastest snatch" printed at each end, a phrase that refers to hoisting a barbell overhead in a single motion. But Greenberg locates the "snatch" part of the banner just below the man's crotch, weirdly feminizing him. In Clean and Jerk--an expression describing another weightlifting move--a silhouetted man is positioned below trophy statuettes of women. One subtext is that this man is "clean" but a "jerk"; another is that weightlifting is akin to jerking off, with the female trophies serving as masturbatory fantasies.

In their ways, Wilde, Smith, and Greenberg are all asking crucial questions about human identity. But Wilde's style suggests the subjectivity of human perception and the transitory nature of life, while Smith's alludes to the divided, isolated nature of the self: both these artists present the human condition as fundamentally unchanging, using styles that take time to absorb. Greenberg, by contrast, suggests that identity is more socially determined--a product of the words and images we choose for ourselves, whose subtexts we often ignore. And if our lives are socially determined, as Greenberg suggests, then we can also change the world, and ourselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "A Glass of Wine and a Levitating Turnip" by John Wilde; "Tom Bogus: The Sweet Tooth" by Aaron Smith; "Fastest Snatch" by Holly Greenberg.

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