Nine new paintings and a dozen works on paper by San Francisco-based Luke Butler continue his keen foray into the vagaries of life lived amid ubiquitous media imagery. An emphatic element of morbidity has been injected into what had hitherto been a more playful mix, a move that may speak to grossly unsettled times when a minor TV celebrity sits atop the federal government.
The paintings in his second solo at Charlie James Gallery show landscapes of tangled tree limbs and churning seas along rocky coastlines — otherwise benign places where a Hitchcock thriller might unfold. Printed neatly across the center of each is an old cinematic tag from an American or European movie’s closing — The End, Finis, An L. Butler Picture, Fin — together with a date in Roman numerals.
Most dates are from the vicinity of 1971, the year of the artist’s birth. That was also a moment when painting was itself claimed to be experiencing death throes — the end, finis. The numbers in the nine pictures’ titles, also Roman in format, don’t correspond to the numbers in the images, but instead record the sequence in which Butler painted them. He’s marking time.
Cinematic Ed Ruscha meets oceanic Vija Celmins, with a bit of Roman Opalka and On Kawara numerology mixed in for good measure. Butler has a sure hand in these works, although they haven’t advanced much from similar paintings he showed at the gallery three years ago.
A potentially compelling new direction will be found in the drawings, which record pages torn from recent newspaper obituaries of movie and television stars — Gene Wilder, Adam West, Carrie Fisher, Roger Moore. What’s odd about these heartfelt factual narratives of human beings now departed is the photographs chosen to top the stories of their lives. Willy Wonka, Batman, Princess Leia, James Bond — cloaked and collaborated fictions stare out from the page. The people are famous for wearing masks, so the masks are what we are shown to remember them by.
These media-made characters have died a little bit too, of course. Or, perhaps with the passing of their celebrity human inhabitants they’ve grown a bit larger; fictional characters do have a life of their own.
Charlie James Gallery, 969 Chung King Road, Chinatown. Through Dec. 9; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. (213) 687-0844, www.cjamesgallery.com