ART REVIEWS : Alexis Rockman: Unholy Alliance of Disney, Bosch


If Walt Disney Productions and Hieronymus Bosch collaborated on a painting, it might look like one of Alexis Rockman’s 19 stunning watercolors at Thomas Solomon’s Garage.

From Disney, the New York-based artist has taken the illusory stop-action suspension of single animation cels, and the more-beautiful-than-life intensity of computer-assisted color saturation. From the 15th-Century Dutch painter of scenes of unnatural depravity, he has taken the subject of the natural order running amok--not toward eventual renewal via ripe maturity, grisly death and festering decay--but profoundly out of whack from the very beginning, with no hope for redemption.

Rockman’s watercolors, however, never wallow in the exquisite morbidity that is usually associated with fatalism and fin de siecle decadence. The light-drenched brightness of their keyed-up colors and loosely painted but precisely outlined flora and fauna gives them a freshness that can only be described as utterly innocent.


In his funniest and most playfully childish images, the animal kingdom gets condensed into strangely dignified creatures perched on spike-studded branches that sometimes impale smaller animals such as a curly-tailed lizard, a furry bird or something that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a frog. If it is unclear whether the bigger beasts are simply studying the dead or preparing to eat them, it is less clear what kind of hybrids they might be. One looks like a fanged bunny with blue wings, and another has a squirrel’s body, raccoon’s tail, chicken’s feet and cat’s whiskers, as well as purple antlers, a pointed green bill, beady red eyes, and stubby front paws with long claws.

Rockman’s art makes no claim for an original guiltlessness that requires sheltering from the ugly underside of life’s seamy desires. His comical pictures dispense with the need for redemption because they rule out the notion that there is anything wrong with transgression or mutation. In one painting, a bee couples with a hummingbird in a gorgeous sky whose hues shift from deep emeralds and topazes to brilliant aquamarines and turquoises. A glow-in-the-dark scorpion casually mounts a chipmunk under a plant teeming with giant ants. A double-headed purple peacock fans its splendid tail; and a dozen colorful butterflies appear through the openings of a silky spider-web.

In contrast to Bosch’s Christian narratives about the terrible consequences of sin, Rockman’s watercolors refrain from making moral claims about the unconventional appetites they depict. In the luscious, bountiful world of his images, extreme physical mutations--even aberrations--seem ordinary, or at least free of our tendency to evaluate sickness moralistically, to turn fate into punishment for choices we never made.

Rockman’s watercolors thus represent a very rare occurrence in art: They extend or intensify or radicalize the claims made by his oil paintings.

His concurrent exhibition of oils on board at Jay Gorney Modern Art in New York is more traditional in its celebration of decay, mutation and decadence. The translucent accumulations of oils, varnishes and lacquers (even poison dart frog toxin in one case) create wonderfully seductive, jewel-like surfaces that unavoidably suggest the passage of long spans of time and the melancholic savoring of delicious but fleeting moments. Their style recalls Dutch still lifes and Vanitas or memento-mori paintings. Their muted tones intimate passing, if not already lost grandeur.

While Rockman’s luxuriantly perverse oils acknowledge the fact that all forms of life will eventually decompose, even mutate, his light-saturated and more off-hand watercolors reject the idea that this “decline” implies a fall from grace. Thoroughly contemporary in their lack of sentimentality, his paintings shown in L.A. do not indulge a nostalgia for a past that never existed, but bring Disney and Bosch into an unholy alliance that employs distortion to capture the truth of the present.


* Thomas Solomon’s Garage, 928 N. Fairfax Ave., (213) 654-4731, through Feb. 2. Closed Mondays.

High Point in Portraiture: “In Spanish Harlem,” at Linda Cathcart Gallery, is a tough, loving exhibition of 13 portraits painted between 1948-49 by Alice Neel (1900-1984). Her singular renditions, of friends and neighbors, grown-ups and children, rank among the best of the century. Neel’s art moves and inspires. It marks a high point in modern portrait painting. It greatly repays every effort to see it.

This small but extremely well-selected exhibition gives generously to the viewer. It is a more focused version of a show of 12 of Neel’s works, including cityscapes, a still-life and a pastel drawing, that Henry Geldzahler curated for the Dia Foundation on Long Island last summer. The California version focuses exclusively on portraiture, the genre which most interested Neel and continues to register her greatest achievements and influence.

Neel’s no-frills, no-nonsense approach gives her pictures a particularly American sense of individuality. Her oils on canvas embody not only an unshakable belief in the sovereignty of every one of us, but also the insistence that if we look carefully enough at the people before us, their unique and inimitable character will eventually emerge, with clarity and distinction.

This stubborn optimism in matter-of-factness or straight-forwardness underlies the seeming ease and gracefulness of Neel’s facility with the paintbrush. Her masterful shifts from exacting resemblance, to simplified depiction, to sometimes schematic suggestion account for the vitality and freshness of her paintings.

Her genius was to know precisely when to add a dab of paint that would form a highlight that would add a twinkle to an eye, that would animate or enliven an entire picture, giving it an undeniable but impossible-to-pin-down sense of being alive--of capturing the essence, or at least the best aspect, of its subject.

Almost insignificant gestures, such as a shoulder’s slump, a wrist’s twist, a mouth’s contortion, or a glance’s angle suggest an intimacy between sitter and painter that doesn’t translate to the viewer except as evidence of the patient knowledge that accompanies familiarity.

Neel’s brilliance was to make such apparently insignificant details into matters of life and death, into the difference between going through the motions of living or finding oneself, completely and unapologetically, in the mundane details of the everyday. All of her paintings in this quietly astounding exhibition have the this-is-it quality that distinguishes even unremarkable acts from the deadening torpor of not really living. Each one affirms the value of knowing what counts. Together, they reveal what is extraordinary in the ordinary.

* Linda Cathcart Gallery, 924 Colorado Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-1121, through Feb. 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A Thrill a Minute: Twin midgets wearing gorilla masks, sequin-costumed weightlifters, a yawning hippopotamus and a seemingly endless array of youthful contortionists, clowns and chimpanzees make up the world portrayed by documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark in her exhibition, “Indian Circus.”

More than 40 beautifully composed platinum prints at Fahey/Klein Gallery give a behind-the-scenes view of the unconventional characters whose job it is to turn their peculiar skills and strange characteristics into spectacular entertainment and dazzling, thrill-a-minute performances. Mark’s photographs are remarkable because they lack any sort of exploitative voyeurism, instead capturing their subjects in ordinary moments: napping, practicing, washing or simply conversing with one another.

She thus manages to turn a freakish theater of anomalies into a coherent universe governed by the mundaneness of the work-a-day world. The people in her pictures are presented with their intrinsic human dignity intact, as if their work in the circus was no different from punching the clock at any other job requiring skilled labor.

* Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 934-2250, through Saturday.

Building on Beckett: Miscellaneous quotations from the books of Samuel Beckett litter the cork, paper and wood collages of Guy Williams at Kiyo Higashi Gallery. Although Williams’ use of the Irish modernist’s words is meant to complement his own interest in the almost imperceptible but always charged shifts between signification and its obliteration, the quotes actually function to diminish the visual artist’s exploration of the territory where meaninglessness and profundity intermingle.

Rather than accentuating Williams’ ability to balance superficiality and off-handedness with deep insights--which has characterized the Santa Barbara-based artist’s 30-year exhibition history--his most recent body of work turns his considerable facility at creating slight but far from uninteresting abstract images into little more than a talent for decorative illustration.

The fragments of text in Williams’ collages totally overwhelm his usually delicate negotiations between irrelevance and truth. If the content of the passages he has pillaged from Beckett agree with the impulse behind his lyrical markings, the form of the quotations swamps his images.

Words, when they appear in pictorial art, almost always delimit meaning’s potential. They bring ambiguity and possibility under the reign of rationality, under the auspices of immediately evident significance. Even when they are as absurd and humorous as those that make up Beckett’s texts, words still lead us to expect that they will deliver us to the singular meaning of the image.

In Williams’ case, any quote is less lyrical than the Zen-inspired scratchings of his calligraphic drawings that combine the randomness of linguistic signification with the freedom of unfettered mark-making.

His best works forgo the reliance on language in favor of fabricating their own unpredictability. Mysterious glyphs, diagrammatic gestures and strangely geometric segments of exotic cork form map-like arrangements that remain profoundly anti-referential.

Without the words, his collages combine the naturalness of Joan Arp’s organic forms, the loose playfulness of Henri Matisse’s silhouettes and the logical structure of Russian Constructivism. Architectural, but unrestrained and illogical, his unstructured collages surpass the way meaning gets made in language. Free, but hardly arbitrary, his lyrical abstractions do better without their literal indebtedness to modern poetry.

* Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose Ave., (213) 655-2482, through Feb. 8. Closed Sundays and Monday.