“Narrative Painting in Los Angeles” is a flat-footed title for what turns out to be an entertaining exhibition at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica. Featuring works by 13 figurative painters, the show is like summer reading, pulling you in with its stories.
The tales open with Sandow Birk’s “The Mid-Term Election (Skate Park)” from 2018, an homage to Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. It depicts a polling place on a sunny strip next to a skate park. A few people trickle in to vote, but the park and its environs are much more active. I appreciated Birk’s nod to Bruegel’s pre-photographic panoramas, where each detail of everyday life is miraculously in focus. But I couldn’t decide if the painting critiques our political malaise or simply shrugs its shoulders, averring that life goes on, despite transformative events at the ballot box.
More pointed is Carl Dobsky’s “Birds of Paradise,” from 2016, an apocalyptic, fall-of-Rome style painting of wealthy revelers at a hilltop pool party. They drink, take selfies, even inadvertently expose a breast while L.A. burns in the background. No ambivalence here. We are all going to hell in an artisanal handbasket.
Another sweeping vista appears in James Doolin’s “Highway Patrol” from 1986, an officer’s view of a freeway interchange from the cool, orderly driver’s seat. It’s chilling in its vision of mastery, complete with rifle mounted on the dash.
Ja’Rie Gray’s diptych “What if I Was …?” from 2014 operates at a more intimate scale. On the right, it portrays the artist as herself, a black woman; on the left, in almost a mirror image, she appears as a white woman. She has the same features and headscarf, only with lighter skin. It’s a simple gesture, but it eloquently explores the ways in which painting makes imagined realities visible.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in F. Scott Hess’ “The Dream of Art History,” from 2018, which depicts a dream he had. A spiraling tube of artworks emerges from his home, engulfing him as he stands at his easel, only to be interrupted by the headlights of a car barreling down on him. A skeleton and a trio of nude ladies float by. Technically, it’s a virtuoso painting, but perhaps some dreams are better left unconscious.
More modest in ambition, if not in effect, is Dan McCleary’s “Trouble,” created this year. It’s a quiet painting, depicting two men and a woman sitting on a bench in a vague institutional setting, hands folded in their laps. They appear stoic, but something ominous is surely about to happen. What are they waiting so patiently for? In these days of detentions and raids, it’s hard not to imbue this work with tension. In making us feel uneasy, it advances a quietly powerful critique of our troubled times.
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Aug. 31
Info: (310) 828-6410, craigkrullgallery.com