Power is the essence of Leon Golub's painting. The abuse of power is his recurrent subject. His object: to invoke the power to move the human spirit and to instill the strength to act.

Golub's artistic encounters with physical bludgeoning and more insidious means of force have been gathering steam since the '50s when he produced such darkly disturbing images as a deformed "Princeling," a two-headed "Siamese Sphinx" and a "Damaged Man."

Unfashionably figurative, socially concerned and overtly political, his art languished during the cool prime of Pop and Minimalism, but when interest in expressive figuration was rekindled and national discontent flamed over the United States' involvement in Vietnam and Central America, Golub's tenacious point of view had churned itself to an explosive state that was ripe for rediscovery.

At 62, he has become a frequent subject of magazine articles and a public figure who delivers lectures and grants interviews. He has spoken of being a "machine that turns out monsters" while his increasingly violent images have ricocheted around the art world with growing prominence for the past couple of years. His huge paintings of vicious interrogators and mercenary goons are becoming almost as familiar as Donald Judd's pristine cubes and Julian Schnabel's broken plates.

Southern California art watchers worth their Art in America subscriptions are intensely aware of Golub's new fame, but his retrospective exhibition--at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, through Jan. 27--is the first extensive local view of his work. The show of about 40 paintings was organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and will travel to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

At gut level, Golub's exhibition delivers all that is promised by the Eastern press. Enormous, unframed, ragged-edged canvases repel unsuspecting visitors with disgusting scenes of wanton violence. A jaunty thug grins and waves one hand while the other holds a gun to the head of a terrorized man on all fours, in "Mercenaries V." A soldier, in "White Squad (El Salvador) IV," tosses a furtive glance over his shoulder after stuffing a body into the trunk of a car.

"Interrogation III" has two men brutalizing a naked woman whose hands are tied and eyes and mouth are taped. In "Interrogation II," four ghouls are pitted against a nude man who is hooded and roped to a straight chair.

Depravity runs riot even when the hateful mercenaries are just "Horsing Around." Their entertainment consists of drunken, apparently brutal sex with girlfriends who are cast of an equally offensive mold. A tough blonde in a skimpy red halter and hip-huggers strikes an arrogant pose as her sharp red nails ominously reach for the genitals of a smiling man in "Horsing Around I."

Despicable people, these, but Golub's aim is not to skewer specific culprits. He means to insinuate them into our consciousness as examples of the human poison that has infected society to the core. He is very successful at devising revolting images (generally inspired by magazine and newspaper photographs) and blowing them up so large that they cannot be overlooked. In a room closely hung with red-backgrounded canvases depicting interrogators, mercenaries and hit squads, the effect is so claustrophobicly affecting that it's hard to stick around long enough to really see the art.

Neo-Expressionism hasn't delivered this clout, nor has much other art in recent years. Golub deserves credit for getting our attention with such a wrenching impact. The problem is that his painting doesn't amount to much more than a shocking temporary encounter. The aesthetic finesse needed to elevate this stunning statement to the level of high art just isn't here.

His canvases are more colored drawings than paintings, and--sad to say--they are often very badly drawn. Most works haven't sustained sufficient transformation of their sources to avoid a crude, scrapbook look. Two series of portraits of Nelson Rockefeller and Franco are particularly weak, though they manage to point up both the vulnerable and diabolical sides of people in charge.

Much has been written in support of Golub's method of piling up and scraping off paint to expose the raw fiber of canvas--thus emulating distressed human skin and exposed nerves--and of building scabby surfaces that allude to the crusty hides and damaged souls of his subjects. Unfortunately, that makes more sense said than seen. The figures tend to disintegrate into flaky masses on stained grounds, and while that too makes sense when explained, it doesn't add up to visually mature art.

The artist and his champions no doubt will cringe at such conservative complaints. He hasn't set out to make pretty, finished paintings, and that's OK. It's also appropriate--if not de rigueur --to borrow ready-made images from the very mass media that reports atrocities of human behavior. What's not OK, unless one is making political banners or posters for temporary use, is to let the subject so overwhelm the art that the residual effect is hollow.

Golub is good at dealing a slap in the face and a blow to the gut; he's less adept at maintaining the aesthetic distance needed to leave his audience with a humanizing scar. It's a thousand times easier to forget these paintings once they are out of sight than to suppress haunted memories of Picasso's "Guernica" or Goya's "Third of May," to which they are compared in the exhibition catalogue. Critics who say that Golub's recent paintings go beyond the purview of photography are forgetting W. Eugene Smith's work and the most horrifying photos of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.

Golub is not merely a propagandist; that's too easy a way to dismiss an intriguingly troublesome and sadly flawed body of work. And the current enthusiasm for Golub's art is more than a response to this year's fashion or one more whim of a voracious marketplace, I think. There's so little credible art as tough as this and as squarely addressed to America's loss of innocence that it was overdue for critical and commercial success.

The difficulty seems to be that Golub is so embroiled in the enormity of his theme that he has created an enormously magnified, pock-marked version of shocking news photographs. The paint isn't the only thing that's been worried thin.

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