Calvin, Garabedian, Harris and McAllister

The black-faced girl has a painted frame around her portrait – shiny, in a goldish color. At the bottom this frame, or framing device, is darkened by reflecting the dark concrete floor. Peering around the corner of the canvas, I find painted a slender yellow gold band which continues and distorts the picture plane of the painting. The face is one that Brian Calvin has painted before, many times: her long blonde hair hangs over one eye and her pink, rounded lips are parted. But why is her face black, I wonder? She looks the beachy type, with her pale hair and the ocean scene depicted on her long fingernails, but this is not the tan of the sun, of activated melanin, it is rather the black of painting, of symbol and abstraction – of ‘the void.’

Calvin’s other paintings in this exhibition lack the framing device and are allowed less abstraction in their composition: the reflections in the eyes of these other girls are round and do loosely resemble representations of such reflections, while in the black faced girl the sunspots look to me like schematic landscapes – the flat sparkles in her eye are rectangular in shape and are divided horizontally, with shades of blue and green at the bottom and yellow and white above.

Two of the artist’s girls have hair bunched in a bun over their left ear, and the ear itself is large and conch-like. I keep referring to these females as girls because their faces lack any characterizing marks that come with age and experience, they have only the essential features – eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth and shadow. They do not appear to have personalities, but I doubt they are aware of this fact. They each seem to be vacantly considering… something.

Calvin’s paint handling is direct without being emphatic, in fact there is a curious lack of emphasis throughout the artist’s contributions to this show. Moss, Mumble, Big Sister and Little Sister are the titles and if these paintings function as portraits, and they may, then they do so only just, as though the sitters might not bear deeper scrutiny.

Brian Calvin’s paintings stick in my mind after I walk away – I don’t want them to, but they hang on, and they even begin to suggest to me names of people I know.

John McAllister’s paintings feature pictures within pictures, or pictures within patterns. In at least one, the artist’s patterning might form an interior – I find a folded shutter or screen at the right side of Tides Must Exalt, and a hint of horizon line in White Softly Blooms Beckoning.

If Matisse comes to mind when I look at McAllister’s paintings, and he does, it is only for a moment while I appreciate the contemporary artist’s facility with patterning and with placing shapes in unsettling orientations. Unlike the early master, McAllister seems not to want energy in his paintings, and instead he chooses elements that are static in themselves, yet are spatially unsettling as compositions. McAllister’s Mauve Decade exercises and Calvin’s dissipated portraits share a feeling of being repeated depictions of the same, or of similar moments.

If I hold Matisse in my mind again, I can also see a connection to Charles Garabedian’s rendering of figures – for Garabedian’s paintings in this exhibition look very much like the painted figures of the early modern French master. Garabedian’s figures have similar playful grace and energy and find their sources in Classical and primitive imagery.

The paintings this California master includes in the show all relate, one way and another, to fantasy, either external – Study for the Iliad (man sitting cross legged, yellow background) and Amazon Queens, or interior – If You Want Me, I’ll Be At The Hairdresser. I think too, that the artist depicts bicameralism in his people – I noticed this at his retrospective at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art this year, too – with his many stories illustrated on the canvas along with the characters, even as they take part in the adventure, it is as though the gods, or a hidden portion of their minds, were directing them.

Zach Harris’s paintings come from some indeterminate, a-historical and possibly Medieval era between the Classicism of Garabedian and Calvin’s contemporary and McAllister’s Modern ennui. In Wheel #3 I find stylized mountains with a tiny Greek temple nestled between the two lowest peaks. At first I make the painting out to be schematic  in nature, with a series of jaggedly depicted and flatly colored mountain peaks rising front to rear, but looking more closely I find that Harris’s scheme is full of incident; the small strokes of paint rising along a ridge above the temple might be golden cypresses, and what looks to be  shadows falling on the peaks could be water flowing down and over the mountains, and this outlines them. There might be text in the white smudge that obscures one blue mountain.

In fact there is much text in Harris’s paintings, for instance, a painting not included in the exhibition but installed in a back room has a string of words that intertwines the artists first name with references to Lebron James, divaricated internet searches, the Vandals in Rome and Time. In other words, all the haphazard things a daydreaming rubricator or illuminator might think as he scribes, “Adoremus in aeternum sanctissimum Sacramentum.
Laudate Dominum omnes gentes: laudate eum omnes populi.” Aah, yes: Inter + wine, Pink Roses in Grid Time, Generative – material shopper – Syntax…

In some areas of the paintings, what appears to be a lush and hazy background is revealed upon closer inspection to have been sanded away, so that several layers of paint blend with the canvas or particle board support underneath. In at least one painting a canvas has been roughly cut away from its source and stuck down to a panel that is then framed in one of the artist’s signature devotional frames, the frayed edges are visible and become a strategy of composition, softening an edge where it meets a hard surface.

I hesitate to use the term frame in the context of Harris’s paintings, for they are so clearly part of the experience, not only for the viewer, but also I imagine for the artist – it looks as though he might in his mind work back and forth between the two, allowing his ideas for the painting to accrete and develop over the long weeks of carving, sanding and gluing thin strips together to make his plateaux de peints.

Brian Calvin, Charles Garabedian, Zach Harris, Brian McAllister is at David Kordansky Gallery until January 21.

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