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OK Computer

Carbonell Adds Technology to the Traditional Still Life

Apple Too: Xavier Carbonell brings the still-life into the electronic age.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 6/6/2001

Paintings by Xavier Carbonell and Martha Zuik

Gomez Gallery through June 23

Most computers would not win any awards for beautiful design. They're functional, and we're simply happy when they do their job. But perhaps it's inevitable that these quiet workhorses of the modern world would become the subjects of still-life painting.

At least that's the case with the work of Spanish painter Xavier Carbonell, now showing at the Gomez Gallery. His otherwise spare compositions typically find room on top of the table for both a computer monitor and a bowl of fruit or another traditional still-life subject. In "Windows," a computer is complemented by a single rose in a white vase. In "Modem," a potted plant rests on some computer equipment. And in "Apple," a monitor sits beside a green apple, indulging the obvious pun.

Through such pairings, Carbonell in effect adds carbonation to a still-life formula that might seem flat if he simply stamped out predictable pictures in the style of the Baroque Vanitas painters (who imbued everyday objects with symbolic significance).

Not every modern reference is of the plugged-in sort. Sometimes he incorporates things like Coca-Cola cans--which, once opened, need to be consumed pretty quickly before losing their fizz. It's the equivalent of a lovely flower or a buzzing insect in a traditional still-life painting. You know that today's beauty is tomorrow's faded flower and dead fly. Although Carbonell probably could push further with his Vanitas reworkings, it's a promising way to bring such ideas before 21st-century viewers.

Besides his still-life paintings, Carbonell creates cityscapes in which familiar urban landmarks, generic rectangular building shapes, commercial signage, and other lettering create a compact sense of place. In "Tour Eiffel," the tower itself is memorably presented as a hazy dark structure against a pale pink sky. The artist generally eschews architectural detail and pretty decoration. That doesn't always serve him well, but it does in a case like this. His somewhat schematic rendering of the Paris skyline captures its essence.

Another Paris scene, "Les Invalides," is anchored by that famous white dome. Some of the surrounding white-toned buildings are presented as blocky towers that resemble Carbonell's depictions of computer equipment in his still lifes. It would be interesting to see him pursue such concerns in what could become a cyber-city series.

New York serves as the setting for a few of the cityscape paintings. In "Water Tanks" and "42 Street," the artist offers views of the skyline, but his real interest is in what you'd notice from down on the ground: billboards, streetlights, small shops, and parking lots are as much a part of the New York experience as the towers up high and in the distance.

One of his most compositionally astute paintings is "Cotton Club," with its jazzy awning and signage speaking to its identity. The club is shown beneath a bridge whose arch frames a view of the distant midtown skyline. A striking link between such cityscapes and the still-life paintings is their mutual interest in signage. In the city scenes, signs (or portions of them) are a realistic part of the scenery; in the still lifes, the titles on carefully arranged books also amount to signs advertising their contents. Carbonell's paintings don't generally have much in common with those of the late American painter Stuart Davis, but they do share an interest in the signs and lettering that help define our modern lives.

Carbonell's emphasis on lettering often takes his paintings beyond the realm of realistic representation and into more symbolic or at least idiosyncratic directions. For that matter, the backgrounds of his still lifes often are filled with subtly painted circles and other geometric shapes that define spaces that are not meant to be photo-realistic depictions.

Carbonell thickly applies oil paint in a manner that draws your attention to the slathering effects of using a palette knife. The still-life objects and cityscape elements are not sharply defined but have a solid, almost crusty quality. This is a mixed blessing. The advantage is that his method is conducive to pondering a real world that seems to be fixed in a murky reverie; the disadvantage is that the surfaces tend to be dense and dull.

Sharing the gallery is Argentine painter Martha Zuik, whose abstract oil paintings are only occasionally effective in playing around with natural associations. Two of her best pieces are "Fuente de Energia," evoking a landscape above which is a sky so energized it's like a spurt of cosmic energy, and "En El Mar Del Tiempo," in which a deft mix of greens, blues, and yellows has affinities with Monet's water-lily paintings.

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