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The stomach-churning, visceral power of Chris Finley's weightlifter portraits

The stomach-churning, visceral power of Chris Finley's weightlifter portraits
Chris Finley, “Drool, Snatch, Clean & Jerk #1,” 2017, sign enamel on canvas over panel, 39 inches by 39 inches. (Ruben Diaz / Chris Finley/Chimento Contemporary)

Artists do all sorts of heavy lifting, often in ways that we least expect.

That’s what happens in Chris Finley’s “Drool, Snatch, Clean and Jerk,” an exhibition of seven oddly powerful paintings at Chimento Contemporary in Boyle Heights. At once unsettling and engaging — ugly and beautiful — Finley’s pictures bring us face to face with weightlifters as they do some real heavy lifting.

It’s not a pretty picture. Eyes bulge. Mouths twist. Teeth clench. And skin stretches taut as veins and arteries pump blood as fast as possible.

Chris Finley, “Drool, Clean & Jerk #2,” 2017, sign enamel on canvas over panel, 39 inches by 39 inches.
Chris Finley, “Drool, Clean & Jerk #2,” 2017, sign enamel on canvas over panel, 39 inches by 39 inches. (Ruben Diaz / Chris Finley/Chimento Contemporary)

Finley’s portraits zoom in on the faces of weightlifters as they perform one of two Olympic-style events: the snatch and the clean and jerk. The first involves lifting the barbell overhead from the ground in one continuous move. The second consists of two movements, lifting the bar from floor to shoulders and then overhead.

Finley paints from his television, making pencil drawings on sketchbook pages. He simplifies what he sees, eliminating tonal shifts, flattening space, sharpening contours and exaggerating contrasts.

He uses sign enamel, applying its glossy, industrial-strength colors in smooth, unmodulated expanses. His hard-edged shapes recall paint-by-number kits that have been customized by a talented tinkerer who favors a palette of curdled pastels and stomach-churning color combos.

Chris Finely, “Drool, Snatch #1,” 2017, sign enamel on canvas over panel, 39 inches by 39 inches.
Chris Finely, “Drool, Snatch #1,” 2017, sign enamel on canvas over panel, 39 inches by 39 inches. (Ruben Diaz / Chris Finley and Chimento Contemporary)

If Finley belonged to a movement or school, it would be Cartoon Cubism. His radically fractured version of reality captures the chaos of life as it’s lived. You’d never mistake his pictures of muscular athletes with Degas’ paintings of ballerinas. But the same focused devotion — or obsessive compulsion — drives each painter’s art.

Sentimentality is aggressively purged from Finley’s images. Violence is implied, both by the contortions of the weightlifters’ faces and by the mutations that take place as Finley translates televised images into enamel on canvas.

Although his paintings have been installed in a mix-and-match manner, it’s easy to rearrange them in your imagination so that sequences can be seen. Narratives form.

In one trio of paintings, a blond athlete seems to turn himself inside out— without falling apart. In a pair of canvases, a dark-haired behemoth appears to implode while still getting the job done. And in the two most discombobulated portraits, Finley has overlaid two weightlifters, creating so much visual tension that his composition seems to be quivering. Your eyes ricochet around its turbulent shards.

Chris Finley, “ Drool, Snatch, Clean & Jerk #2,” 2017, sign enamel on canvas over panel, 39 inches by 39 inches.
Chris Finley, “ Drool, Snatch, Clean & Jerk #2,” 2017, sign enamel on canvas over panel, 39 inches by 39 inches. (Ruben Diaz / Chris Finley and Chimento Contemporary)

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That’s no mean feat. It’s the artistic equivalent of heavy lifting. Drawing visitors into the action, Finley invites us to find more meaning and metaphor and mystery than immediately meets the eye.

Chimento Contemporary, 622 S. Anderson St., Space 105, Los Angeles. Through July 15; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 433-0508, www.chimentocontemporary.com

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