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Old School

Painting Grads Revisit Old Styles Through New Eyes

Robert Jones' "Andy's House"

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/2/2006


At College of Notre Dame’s Gormley Gallery through Aug. 5

Mostly recent graduates of MICA’s Hoffberger School of Painting, the four painters featured in the Gormley Gallery’s Pulse exhibit also share a common medium, oil, and a common interest in classic, time-tested subject matter: the human figure, posed before an intriguing background on a massive canvas. This approach to oil painting has been the industry standard for hundreds of years and, as such, has a tendency to prompt a "been there, seen that" reaction.

Luckily, the work created by Edmond Praybe (the one undergrad), Zachary Thornton, Robert Jones, and John Moran is, for the most part, anything but ordinary. All four artists strive to bring something new and modern to monumental figurative oil painting with varying degrees of success.

Of the four, Jones is particularly adept at melding his subjects with their surroundings, using bright, blurry shades of turquoise, green, gold, and orange to transform scenes of average-looking people in rural places into dream landscapes. His "The Windsor Chair Factory" achieves a surreal, Alice in Wonderland mood, as a blond woman in blue jeans stands among translucent, whip-thin weeds that drip like watercolors off the canvas. Beyond her, a seemingly massive chair and armoire loom near the edge of the painting, their subdued muddy brown contrasting nicely with Jones’ wild sunset-on-crack palette. Less experimental but equally evocative, "Andy’s House" depicts a pair of abandoned school buses floating like derelict ships in a sea of dandelions, while a towheaded boy cradles a struggling rooster. There’s mystery in the composition, and an unspoken invitation for you to guess at what’s going on.

Thornton, known locally for his photorealist portraiture, re-exhibits one of the stronger pieces from his Current Gallery show last year, "A Mid-Suburban Night’s Dream." This piece, evocative and dark, is Thornton at the top of his game--the lone newer work on offer here, 2006’s "Wallpaper (Tree)," is a predictable and ultimately uninspired profile of a young woman standing before a painting of a tree, surrounded by--you guessed it--tree-themed wallpaper.

"Ingmar’s Children," a work from Moran that--much like Ingmar Bergman’s film oeuvre--owes more than a small debt to the expressionists, is wrought in bold tones of blood red and orange. Two creamy human profiles float in front of a landscape that evokes the cliffs and crashing sea seen in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The total effect is intriguingly unsettling. By contrast, "Cocteau’s Women," presumably an examination of the few notable females in the French artist’s life, is drab and lifeless, mostly brown and gray, and has an unfinished feel. Where "Ingmar’s Children" is bold and commanding, this second offering feels hesitant, almost unsure of itself.

Uncertainty is almost nonexistent in Praybe’s vivid, of-the-moment style. Reminiscent of local favorite Tony Shore’s velvet portraits of Baltimorean city life, Praybe’s sprawling scenes capture the Bacchanalian, bohemian spirit of art-school youth, recasting angel-headed hipsters as characters in his own version of mythology. "Dance of Salome" imagines the biblical figure--a Renaissance favorite--as a 21st-century belly dancer frolicking with abandon in an apartment draped in hippie tapestries and strewn with the remains of an impromptu feast--crabs, lemons, wine, a skull. In the background, a gaunt man stands naked while a reveler wearing a crown offers Salome a woozy salute. The sentiment "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" permeates the scene, which could be straight out of anyone’s college career. Praybe’s command of texture sets him apart from the other three artists in this show--unafraid to layer his boldly colored oils in thick, gooey lines, he does an admirable job of capturing the dancer’s musculature and movements.

"Allegory of the Arts" also betrays Praybe’s fascination with the trends and themes of 15th-century painting, personifying various arts as bohemian youth, similar to the group seen in "Salome." Of course, the painter makes the most lasting impact--standing in the foreground, an arsenal of brushes poised in his clawlike hand, this figure makes direct eye contact with his viewers, offering a challenge with his twisted face. In the corner, a musician strums a cherry red guitar, its strings painted in a disjointed, blurry manner suggesting movement. The other two figures--a nondescript man and a preening, cowboy-hatted blond woman--are not as readily identified with their artistic occupations, but this vagueness weakens merely the piece’s concept, not its execution. Praybe’s paintings are a rich, wild look at old conceits through modern eyes, and an example that the other Pulse artists would do well to follow.

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