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CITY LIFE - MAY 24 2005




New Mexican artists move forward by looking back

James Mann, curator at the Las Vegas Art Museum, has a thing for tradition. In fact, he thinks it's the wave of the future. The age of postmodern deconstruction is, to Mann, passé

. "Their positions were valid at the time," explained Mann during a recent conversation. But art can't be dismantled any more than it already has been."

He went on to make a comparison to the beating of already long-dead horses. And maybe he has a point. Maybe we've taken the postmodern bent too far, tearing pieces of pieces of pieces down, and then forcing viewers to still appreciate the leftover scraps, like artistic (or literary, for that matter) roadkill. It's a theory the passionate curator has put into practice in the JVAMs recent exhibit, Fifteen Santa Fe Artists.

Don't let the title fool you. This isn't "Southwestern" art on display, and there isn't a single Kokopelli in the mix. The grouping of more than 125 pieces has less to do with locale than it does a shared sensibility; or what Mann refers to as a collective revolt against the "dominant dismantling of tradition."

Still, place is a dominant theme flowing through several of the artists' work, from Paulette Frank's Cezanne-inspired desertscapes to Whitman Johnson's Santa Fe hillsides to Michael Wright's journey from solid terrain to more abstract studies in desert earth. While some of these pieces left this landscape-weary critic high and dry Joel Greene's cubist renditions took the scenes in an interesting direction.

Mann claims we're on the brink of a brave new artistic era, one defined by its imminent return to more classical influences (or neoclassical, baroque, Renaissance, etc.). The 15 chosen artists help define Mann's "radical" position by combining the lessons of the past with fresh, innovative visions of the present.

Geoffrey Laurence's portrait series, placed front and center, illustrates Mann's merger concept. The artist's focus on form is as apparent in his modern figures (soldier, prom date, guy shaving) as it is in his reproductions of Renaissance artworks that hang as a backdrop behind the characters, offering a simultaneous view of both.

Jody Sunshine's work offers more of a study in artistic evolution in influences, ranging from thick-stroked interior portraits ('70s) to highly abstract, conceptual pieces ('70s) to her most recent collage-style acrylics, such as 'just Before the Bride Fainted," which despite their brash, Warholian pinks, drip with irony and sadness.

From here, artist Jerry West takes us deep into the-time-honored artistic tradition of the grotesque, offering graphic depictions of the gruesome underbelly of self-destruction and imperialism, with several post-apocalyptic landscapes simmering in flames and nuclear ash. Still, the Monty Python-esque "Return of the Nuclear Warrior" caught me grinning. It's pretty morbid stuff, and it offers an interesting contrast to Jo Basiste's clever, but far tamer portrait series of the "Seven Cardinal Virtues" In the next room over.

Zara Kriegstein's four-panel mural study tells Santa Fe's judicial history through vivid, storybook illustrations, while other historically focused works show a world of booze, boobs and corrupt politicians, which should score knowing nods from Vegas viewers. She's also embraced a classic tradition of painting the faces of friends, colleagues and prominent city figures into her characters, kind of like product placement, only cooler.

David Mauldin goes right for the products, infusing pop-culture tidbits like Marlboro Men and a Hertz office. But he shows a far different side in "Heron with Abstract," which starts as a relatively tame wildlife portrait, then explodes outward (onto diagonally arching ciayboards) into intricate tessellations of wing-shaped patterns. And I took a particular liking to Dennis Flynn's modernized takes on such classics as Munch's "

Frieze of Life" and Botticell's "Venus,' where the namesake's decked out in a pink polka-dot bikini. "Some may consider [the collection} conservative in nature," says Mann. " But i disagree. It's radical in going beyond the current aesthetic."

So, is derivative the new innovative? In the end, whether or not you choose to view the exhibit in light of Mann's goals (a process that, for me, only reaffirmed my love-hate relationship with theory in general), the work itself is worth checking out. It's one of those exhibits that, once you get over the initial onslaught of competing imagery, you're likely to find a groove you can settle in and enjoy.



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