“Sincerely Yours” — Torrance Art Museum

“Sincerely Yours”
Torrance Art Museum
January 17 – March 7th, 2015

The first large show of the year at the Torrance Art Museum features pairs of paintings by a dozen painters. Under the exhibit’s title on the museum’s website, a single sentence poses multiple questions: “Is there a current resurgence in the notion of the Romantic in contemporary painting today and if so how is it related to bygone versions, how is it different and where is it coming from?” Unfortunately, the scope of the questions exceeds the scale of the show. This is not to say that the organizer of the show is setting us up for a futile inquiry, for the paintings are more than worth a visit, but the exhibit is too small a sample of the work of the painters under consideration to provide a basis for a reliable response.

One possible resource, of course, are the statements provided by the artists, and while the fairly substantial poetics by several of the painters were thoughtful and occasionally acute, I can’t say that the statements directly addressed any common thematic question or indicated that the painters thought of themselves as an affiliated group. Nothing hinted that they were in the formative stage of some subtle manifesto by which other artists could begin to gauge their project.

For the time being, therefore, the multi-part question posed on the website seems more like the beginning of a calm discussion, and placidity is not what is needed. More appropriate would have been a sense of trepidation emerging out of a long dialogue’s most awkward silences. Good questions have a provenance of constant hesitation: this word or this word? These questions, in fact, are just too easy on themselves and end up displacing the responsibility to be both provocative and clarifying onto the viewer without the questions incurring any penalty.

Despite this, it turns out that the questions are relevant, though one has to do the footwork oneself. Srijon Chowdhury’s “Japanese Garden,” for example, is one of the most intriguing paintings of the show. A filtering white veil in the foreground forces the pink shapes underneath its chalky glow to retreat into a saturated penetralia of the artist’s own making. Ah! A romantic gesture, to be sure, and when one goes to his website, the work on view indeed would lend itself to a consideration of neo-romanticisms.

It appears, therefore, that this might be an occasion with just enough happening to dally with the show’s premises. “Where does it come from?” Let’s take on that question briefly, but first note that I’d prefer to make romanticism plural. As with modernism, or almost any –ism, the singular is a dead end, and in order to understand how this cluster of painters might be drawing on some of the same kind of impulses, one must acknowledge the variety of influences on their work. Charles Alexander, for instance, uses stencils to create a pointillistic romanticism that echoes some of the effects created by Tony Berlant. I doubt that Berlant would see the influence, and yet as I did some research on Berlant, I found a description that overlaps with Alexander’s self-assessment. Berlant’s work has been described as being like “quilt- like patterned compositions.” Alexander notes that “Common and mass-produced textiles have provided me with readymade stencils” from clothing design. Both have a sense of perforated textiles that are hardly evocative of some romantic effusion, but could be said to generate a glow that pushes towards a renewal of the romantic impulse for direct encounter with a vision.

Another artist who had a touch of the textile at work was Mark Dutcher, whose poetics of “empathy transfer” seemed to match his playfulness and willingness to seem exuberant without apology. His statement noted that he collaborates with the SF poet, Maw Shein Win, and it would be gratifying to see a larger exhibit of their collaborations.
In contrast with Alexander’s, Chowdhury’s, and Dutcher’s paintings, as well as the thick layers of landscaped terraces of Alec Egan, were the paintings of Sarah Dougherty, whose furnished rooms seem quietly, but magnanimously polished by daily rituals of lambent self-cleansing. It is as if some refugee from the world of Vuillard had found redemption and – dare I say it – love. Not the futile pathos of love depicted in the poems of an earlier Romanticism, but a reckoning in which commitment to the space lived in is equal to the capacity of the individuals to share their lives.

The show’s most profound account of the journey and risks of the romantic might be in the work of Maja Ruznic, who has a pair of paintings in this show much larger than the ones I saw at a gallery about six months ago. These paintings echo that earlier work in their sense of an inner turmoil made visible, but they are also more intimidating. At first, one moves closer to the paintings to examine the details with little suspicion or fear. Suddenly, though, about a foot and a half away, it becomes difficult to push the “escape button.” The paintings, almost against one’s will, pull one ever closer to the afterlives of those who are pulverized by civilizations’ perverse new fascination with war. The statement to the side of the painting confirms the way that an anguished, brutalized figure – with all limbs amputated – reminds us of the horrors depicted by Goya. “The figures,” writes Ruznic, “whose gender is ambiguous are alive and dead simultaneously – they are avet – the Bosnian word for an apparition.” Ruznic’s ability to reveal the consequences of human depravity draws upon the willingness of the romantic to challenge the rational efficiency of methodically conducted warfare.

Finally, Joshua Hagler’s work also summons the figurative as a conjectural transformation of repressed psychic energy unable to restrain itself any longer. In one painting, a reverse image of a mythic creature has yanked itself loose from a carousel of nightmares: a pair of legs seems to jackknife into the saddled rump of a distraught centaur (not the body of a horse and the head of a man, but an inversion of that image). This painting makes (uncredited) use of a line of poetry by William Carlos Williams: “The descent beckons as the ascent beckoned.” On the opposite wall, the missing rider of the saddle image has dismounted: we see only the calf and boot at the edge of the painting, and it is hard to tell what has been buried. As in Ruznic’s paintings, there is the suggestion that historical forces are still at work that must be reckoned with at some point.

It is next to impossible in a short review to do full justice to this show, and I do not want to conclude with mentioning the glossy allure of Jessica Williams’s vase, Annie Lapin’s intriguing abstraction, “Cherd of a Thought,” or Nick Brown’s tapestry-like evocation of a winter landscape.

“Sincerely Yours” has assembled a young group of artists who are vigorously intent keeping the subject of painting open enough to include their personal indentations, whether it be the subtle cloth of domestic contemplation or the repulsive subjugation of another human in the name of some ignoble cause. Perhaps the revival of the romantic involves the willingness to move ahead with painting as an art that (like poetry) affirms its surprising ability to attest to our confounding contemporary history.