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'Here's Looking at You, Kid'

Paintings Packed With Dazzling Technique and Complex Narratives

By the time 1 got to Geoff Laurence's painting exhibition at Fred R. Kline Gallery the announcement was dog‑eared from being carried in my purse. The reproduction did what so few do ‑ it was compelling. The image of a handsome and muscular young man wearing a woman's summer dress and seated in an aureole of brush strokes seemed both oddly sweet and tough. As intriguing as the image itself was the painter's obvious facility for painting the figure and his exuberant bravura brushwork. Would the paintings hold up in person?

In the somber main gallery of the Kline Gallery, Geoff Laurence's 19 Mannerist figure paintings jostle against one another, some almost ready to pounce. Each proposes a complex psychological world, some more successfully than others. They're painterly know‑how brought back the 16th century shift from sited allegorical paintings that were commissioned for a specific altar, niche, or villa wall to the portable painting that could demand attention in any setting. These grand secular paintings used internal theatrical lighting and drama to great effect. They were packed with dazzling technique and complex narratives. Two artists brought to mind by Laurence's work ‑ Caravaggio and Bronzino ‑ painted paintings meant to grab the viewer with their intensity. Centuries later we are still looking at them.

Like Caravaggio, the people in Laurence's paintings are clearly friends, yet only one small head of a young blond man might be called a portrait, the rest are psychological parables. The young man in the dress is perplexing and intriguing because he is both strong and virile at the same time as he seems open and vulnerable, completely at home in his skin and his flowered frock. The subject of the painting reverberates and is amplified by the style of painting which is both dashing and refined. Titled "Union," this confident painting of a confident man dressed as a woman is clearly a physical and visual metaphor for the strange and wonderful uniqueness of every person, who must build a life from the bizarre circumstances of their individual human existence. Think of each face and each human ‑ and each painting ‑ as being built from the inside out.

"Union's" disquieting and disturbing effect is an effect found in many fine paintings of people through history. Here, not only the image of the painting looks back at the viewer, but the hands, forearms and feet seem to breach the two‑dimensional surface. They almost seem to reach through the flat plane and touch the viewer. Instead of the viewer looking at a painting, the viewer has had the tables turned: The viewer is the viewed. Every seasoned museumgoer has experienced a similar disconcerting jolt, looking into a face that seems alive and breathing, ready to speak to us across the centuries. From being in charge of our own gaze, the viewer is suddenly responding to the gaze of another, from another time and place. It is both a challenge and an invitation. Here, the expression in the man's eyes and mouth might be described as both curious and "puckish." Laurence has somehow managed to push the frisson of the image ‑ the man in the dress is after all bald and he is crossing his legs like a woman ‑ and the tradition of figure painting without it turning into a freak show. The longer I kept company with this man the more completely at ease I felt, just as the man is at ease, just as the painter is at ease with his skill.

A number of the works here are double images. Two full‑blooded fleshy renditions of the same person are painted together in physical contact. "Shifra, Shifra" seems Baudelarian in its commitment to disturbing beauty. The same woman ‑ one in a harlequin‑like costume ‑ rests her hand on the bare shoulder of herself. Painted in living color, they stand before a grisaille image of men at hard labor on a rock pile. Apparently the subject is the daughter of Holocaust. As friend who is also the daughter of survivors said to me: There are no survivors," and "We are all survivors." Laurence's double images seem to embrace these seemingly necessary contradictions. Again the painting style is doing the same work. You can't focus on the marks and the full images at the same time, any more than you can study the typographical elegance of a page while reading it. The conspicuous insistence on being "just paint" and a 3‑D illusion is a technique used by painters since they began making magic of our perception's frailties. Such artists as Franz Hals, Velazquez, De Kooning and Chuck Close come to mind.

Laurence's work prompts both close perceptual attention and wide‑ranging art historical scanning. His works have a relationship to the work of Eric Fischl, whose groups of smaller scaled figures in suburban oriented psychological tableaux are not nearly as well painted as Laurence's. And the flat compositions of a major artist like Pearlstein seem even more bloodless, chilly and dour in comparison to Laurence's palpating physicality. Laurence's paintings also bring to mind Alice Neel's great portraits and Gary Hill's "Tall Ships" video currently at SITE Santa Fe. What Laurence and Neel and Hill have in common is a combination of high craft and an ability to render their friends and family with both great objectivity and compassion. All seem to attempt a precarious kind of magic show.

PS. Geoff Laurence will be teaching a two‑part series titled "Anatomy for Artists" at the Santa Fe Art Institute on TUesday evenings, 6‑8:30 p.m. Part 1: "Bones," Jan. 13 ‑ Feb. 24; and Part 2: "Muscles," March 10‑ April 21, 473‑6225.



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