For an artist who built his reputation on technique-structured abstraction, Billy Al Bengston shows surprising literary talent. A copious batch of paintings centers on the image of a commercial jetliner. It is glimpsed through a shuttered window silhouetted against the moon and half-hidden behind exotic tropical flowers.
The combination evokes a common, but rarely expressed mood that falls over lone travelers arriving in exotic places. It’s an ineffable feeling that arises from mixtures of opposites, glamour and isolation, longing and resignation, luxurious surroundings that go unshared. There is something world-weary here that brings to mind David Hockney or Noel Coward looking at life as a comedy of manners. Occasionally there is an overlay of Graham Greene, a whiff of the ominous or hallucinatory. Is that plane landing or crashing? Is that flurry of shapes a horde of butterflies or a phantasmagoric squadron of flying amphetamine capsules?
For some years now Bengston has been retooling his art toward a classicized form of Neo-Expressionism. His admirers from the old days keep anticipating a feeling of sell-out or disappointment from the change, but it never quite comes the way it does with other established artists who jump bandwagons. Maybe it’s because we never expect anything more from Bengston than that he will be the ultimate pro.
But this work does dismay in the sloppiness of its execution. Here is the artist who gave meaning to the term Finish Fetish , and he can’t even paint a sky wash without making it look labored. He resorts to scrubbing paint on a huge red flower in “Havana” so the dead flat shape will offer a weak excuse for a surface. His shapes look like he’s still masking them and they don’t orchestrate smoothly. If he were not still a great colorist and surface designer, it would be obvious these things are put together like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
Neo-Ex has made a virtue out of amateurishness and Bengston’s work is exploiting that. The truth, however, appears to be that his art has landed on turf it has not yet conquered and is standing there bluffing in masterly fashion. (James Corcoran Gallery, 8223 Santa Monica Blvd., to May 31.)