Jan Vanriet is a Belgian figurative painter whose autobiographical works combine imaginary, historical and realistic narratives in an odd melange that resembles an uneasy fusion of 1920s book illustration, David Hockney and the Flemish Symbolists. His current work, completed in New York over the last year, blends surreal Manhattan street imagery with doses of European literary and historical quotation. Recurring portraits of such Russian Constructivists as Tatlin and Mayakovsky rub shoulders with introspective self-portraits, as well as a pensive study of Gilbert without George (a witty dismantling of the inseparable British performance and visual art team).
Vanriet’s primary interest appears to be the 20th-Century avant garde, in particular the dogmatic tenets of modernist abstraction. “Avenue B Boogie Woogie,” for example, is an obvious reference to Mondrian’s famous “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Vanriet transforms it into a figurative, David Salle-like dreamscape of East Village decadence. Artists, bums, taxi cabs and refuse float around like so many lost “souls,” caged by a superimposed chain-link fence--a clear metaphor for the aesthetic entrapment of the modernist grid.
Although Post-Modernism offers alternatives to formalist strictures, Vanriet’s solution lies in a return to figurative representation, a Populist genre that allows the artist to play the role of didactic moral humanist. At times the results are condescending. Vanriet is at his best when his combination of written text, historical quotation and personal experience remains open-ended giving the viewer room to critique both history and its modern (mis)interpretation. (Wenger Gallery, 828 N. La Brea Ave., to March 4.)