Psychological Themes Flow From Brush

A strong current of sexuality--flaunted, taunted, suppressed and confused--runs through David Baze's recent work. Paintings by the San Diego-based artist have been exhibited with regularity along the local college gallery circuit in the last few years, and Baze's episodic, quirky canvases have always left behind an intriguing residue of questions.

Their combination of aggressive brushwork and ambiguous, psychologically charged themes has proved rich and open-ended.

A recent retrospective at the Hyde Gallery at Grossmont College, where Baze teaches, traced the artist's path back to early efforts at highly structured, tightly painted, surreal tableaux with explicit references to the canons of art history. Baze has loosened up quite a bit since those early works, as his current show through June 16 at the David Zapf Gallery in San Diego amply demonstrates.

Paint flows much more freely now, and in the paintings and drawings from 1989-90 shown here, fleshy, languorous creatures have replaced the waxen, lifeless women of the early tableaux. Men have undergone less dramatic a transformation; they remain nearly as rigid and controlled as before, and this contrast between the sexes leads to an impasse that gives much of Baze's work its characteristic, ambiguous tension.

In "Carousel," for instance, Baze stages a meeting of the types, a scene of thwarted communication. A couple sits on a seaside patio, she slouched over the table, he straight-backed and resolute. She gazes up at him with dark, mildly disdainful eyes. The tiny skull earring dangling from her ear offers a subtle reminder of the way love and mortality have long been paired in the history of art.

A sinuous trail of smoke floats from their ashtray off the canvas to the left, just as a similar trail reaches them from the table on the right. This repetition of forms links the tables within the image with those beyond, as if each couple's story was merely another chapter in a continuous human drama. A figure of a solitary man, standing in the background reading a book, echoes this notion. The man, an image of the artist himself, also serves symbolically as witness and recorder of the chapters as they unfold.

Other confrontational scenes are less benign. In "Eddie and the Sirens," a woman strips, seemingly on stage, before a studious elderly gentleman. Men to either side watch the same flamboyant action with expressions of surprise or vague disinterest.

In "Donnie's Dream," a young man in the foreground looks askance, while the couple behind him kisses and fondles and, farther back, a nude woman sweeps. These disjunctive scenes mix fantasy and visual fact in still, narrative slices without beginning, end, logic or coherent context. Free-floating fictions, they are Baze's musings on love, lust and the pain these passions bring.

Consistently in both the paintings and drawings here, women are cast as seducers, objects of erotic interest, and men as observers, passive voyeurs. This stereotypical perspective is most pronounced in Baze's single-figure paintings of nude or nearly nude women. In "Marita," "Odessa," "After the Flood," "Sisters" and the drawing, "Marcellina's Sister," Baze paints women in alluring poses, stretched out on a sea of colored cloth, on hands and knees before a mirror, or staring straight out of the page, with one hand lightly touching a breast.

Baze matches his reverence of the female form here with an equally worshipful approach to the sensuality of paint. His figures do not stand in front of a scene but are gripped by the lush, fluid patchwork of paint that describes the space around them. Baze's approach to color is also unrelenting--each form, each surface bears an intensity that leaves no room for release.

This kind of palette can ignite a surface with heightened energy, but when overused, it can also cancel itself out and leave only a garish, overzealous impression. Baze flirts with extremes, both in his choice of color and subject, but his game is most enticing when he doesn't give in.

Baze will give a free, informal lecture about his work at 2 p.m. Saturday at the gallery, 2400 Kettner Blvd.

ARTLINES: "California Mission Daze," a new book by local artists Deborah Small and David Avalos with James Luna and William Weeks, has just been released, the authors announced. The book deals with the settlement of the California missions by Father Junipero Serra, focusing on aspects that have been largely suppressed in conventional histories, particularly the mistreatment of Native Americans in the name of racial and religious superiority.

The authors have begun presenting the book to area Indian reservation libraries and Indian groups. They hope to distribute it to libraries in the city school system as well. The book is an expanded version of a catalogue made for the exhibition, "California Mission Daze," held at Installation gallery in 1988. A COMBO literature grant funded the printing of the new edition. . . .

Public art got a boost from private initiative last month with the installation of a new sculpture by Manuel Neri in the Renaissance-La Jolla development in the Golden Triangle. "Renaissance Woman," a marble sculpture based on the artist's interpretation of a 14th-Century woman, stands just off Renaissance Avenue in the new community. It was commissioned by McKellar Development of La Jolla.

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