ART REVIEWS : The Push and Pant of Virtue's Northern England Landscapes


After a week of walking through fields and small towns in Northern England last May, I finally began to understand why John Virtue's works look the way they do. After a while, the look of the landscape and the action of climbing and striding through it begin to merge, as if you couldn't visualize the view from a hill without recalling the pant and push to get there.

On first glance, Virtue's large, shellac-stiffened black-and-white charcoal drawings appear to be regularly rising and falling abstract designs organized into grid formats. Closer inspection reveals a series of shadowy views of huddled villages, undulating hills, meandering fences, tipsy chimneys and shrouded Jane Eyre-ish houses. Puddles and lashings of black ink and drifts of white gouache envelop hill and dale in an elemental fury of wind, snow and rain.

Virtue once worked as a postman in his native Lancashire, which obliged him constantly to walk around his own village. A decade ago, organizing the sheaves of small drawings he made into grid formats provided him a way out of his early impasse as a painter.

In recent compositions he adeptly varies rhythm and mood by increasing or decreasing the amount of blackness, the size of the individual scene and the massing of images--albeit always within a distinctly minor key.

The pieces that don't work are the tiny single drawings. They're too flatly naturalistic and too sweetly miniaturized. Most disappointingly, they lack the insistent rhythmic effects of Virtue's vast patchworks of dark and light. Conversely, "Landscape No. 88," which contains 180 images, is the densest and richest piece in the show. A fine-grained all-over pattern, like an overgrowth of bracken, separates the imagery from the viewer much as tangled tree limbs screen the courtiers who've slept through 100 years in Act III of the ballet "Sleeping Beauty."

Were Virtue a different kind of artist, one might see a social program here: a fond commentary on small towns slumbering through late 20th-Century upheaval. But he seems more preoccupied by the history of possibilities within the world of art: ways of expressing fidelity to what the eye sees, emotional attachment, and the coolly rational workings of the mind.

His work is related in various ways to the dense, small-scale landscape etchings of his 18th-Century countryman Samuel Palmer, the art of his 20th-Century countrymen and fellow walkers Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, the organizational strategies of Minimalism and the nervous, highly personal "handwriting" that came into its own with Abstract Expressionism.

"Subversive Classicism Subverted" is the title for a miscellany of work by veteran Los Angeles painter Llyn Foulkes, Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer and Yasumasa Morimura, a young Japanese artist.

Foulkes' line-up of small portraits of men is disfigured by Elephant Man swellings, dried blood and various collaged elements: cartoon eyes, a Dada-esque mask, a TV screen. They seem to be ordinary guys in drip-dry shirts who got mixed up in some nasty business--got their faces bashed in, their brains rearranged--by the same faceless enemy, the callousness of modern life.

Rainer, who first came to avant-garde prominence in the '50s and '60s, when he covered paintings by various artists with monochromatic coats of paint, is probably best known for drawings on photographs of his own face and body.

In the '70s he began using photographs of works by other artists. "Eight Paintings Over Works by F.X. Messerschmidt," from 1976-77, consists of large photographs of blandly classical sculptures of men's heads that Rainer defaced with a drizzle of black doodles. A darkly antic gesture, it suggests a primal rage against figures of perfection or authority, a need to make one's mark by cutting the other guy down to size.

Morimura is the most genuinely "subversive" artist in the show. Although he belongs to the vast ranks of those who find sport in reworking paintings by icons of Western art, his elaborately rigged, posed and over-painted color photographs deal freshly and mischievously with cross-cultural and transsexual notions.

In "Portrait (Fugato)," his largest set-piece, he inserts his own, incongruously blonde-wigged head and torso on Edouard Manet's nude prostitute, Olympia. Various subsidiary elements in the famous painting of that name are spruced up with Japanese textiles, flashy ornaments and anachronistic brushwork. Most obviously, the piece mocks the longstanding passion among Japanese for tasteful French art, which has reached a crescendo in recent big-ticket Impressionist auctions. "Olympia," on the other hand, cuts too close to the bone. Olympia's blatant stare and the pride of place devoted to the black servant call into question some ticklish issues for the Japanese: the still-lagging emancipation of women, the role of sex in a prudish society and a homogeneous society's unwitting acceptance of black stereotypes.

The imagery also plays on specifically Japanese artistic traditions. Posing as a woman has time-honored roots in Kabuki theater, in which certain male actors ( onnagata ) specialize in women's roles. The chief figures portrayed in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, too, were either idle, sensuous woman, elaborately dressed, or actors who played women's roles. By slipping into the role of the onnagata, Morimura becomes the perfect commentator, at once embracing and unmasking his culture.

L.A. Louver, 55 N. Venice Blvd. and 77 Market St, Venice. Through Aug. 4.

Modern Classics: Alfred Stieglitz and Diane Arbus are the odd couple in G. Ray Hawkins' inaugural show at his gallery's new Santa Monica location. But both photographers are represented with what have come to be considered classic images. In Arbus' case, it shows how little time it takes to become a classic these days, and how quickly our eyes adapt to what was once widely thought downright peculiar if not repellent.

The Stieglitz photogravures from the first decade of the 20th-Century are vintage prints originally published in Stieglitz's famous modern art magazine, Camera Work, and suffused with the foggy grays beloved of the "pictorial" photographers.

The familiar views of New York City are here: the uncluttered skyline of "Lower Manhattan," with a steamer puffing smoke against billowing clouds, a huge construction scaffolding looming over quaint mansard roofs and a streetcar in "Old and New New York." Other old friends include "The Steerage," the much-reproduced image of anxious-looking immigrants waiting to dock.

The 10 Arbus prints--all but two printed by an assistant but signed by the artist--date from 1962 to 1970, a year before she died. Her most identifiable subjects were the kind of people children are taught not to stare at on the street, people who don't look "normal" either physically or mentally, or both. And yet it is the fidgeting, shouting boy--identified in the accompanying description as retarded--who shows the only spark of life in a portrait of a zombie-like Brooklyn family out for a Sunday stroll.

But this particular selection of photographs is largely composed of images more broadly about the rituals and relationships of contemporary middle-class life--the way women chose to deck themselves out in makeup and teased hair, the cheesy plastic, fringe and tinsel-bedecked splendor of a Levittown living room at Christmas, or the way each member of a suburban family relaxed in a private, touch-me-not cocoon on their spacious lawn. With a distance of two decades, Arbus seems to be more about style as a projection of the undercurrents of a culture.

G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, 910 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, to Aug. 4.

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