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Bright Still Lifes Fail to Dazzle at Gomez

Roberto Azank’s "Still Life #106"
Tatiana Palnitska’s "Flower?"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 3/28/2001

Paintings by Roberto Azank, photographs by Tatiana Palnitska and Linda Ingraham

Gomez Gallery through April 8

Roberto Azank's paintings may be still-lifes, but they aren't exactly quiet. Although his spare compositions seem suitable for contemplation, his contrasting colors are so strident that these vases, loaves of bread, flowers, tabletops, and walls become much more assertive than you'd expect from this very traditional genre.

Azank uses a limited repertory of props and only minor alterations in their arrangement in the 12 untitled paintings in this Gomez Gallery exhibit, but the hues vary considerably within and between paintings. The zones of bold color are eye-catching, sometimes to the point of being garish. In "Still Life #66," for instance, a purple bottle, a wine glass half-filled with red, a loaf of bread on a platter, and a lit candle are placed atop what is presumably a blue tablecloth but seems more like the sort of all-over blueness one expects to find in a colorfield painting. Above that horizontal blue plane is a horizontal green plane by way of wall. It may not be a conventionally beautiful juxtaposition of colors, but it can't be ignored.

The lined-up objects in the painting are widely spaced, as if they're clinical specimens laid out for inspection, which makes for a cool viewer response despite the hot colors. And, while a few paintings feature visual brush strokes, for the most part this artist goes for flat paint application in compositions with virtually no pictorial depth.

The almost posterlike quality gives these paintings immediate visual appeal but doesn't reward prolonged study. The symmetrical ordering of props in a painting such as "Still Life #106," with its flower-filled vases flanking a vase holding an apple, is pleasing, but the enjoyment is limited to taking note of the compositional balance.

Azank occasionally seems to promise something more, either technically or thematically, but he holds back. In "Still Life #102," a stubby candle seems to acknowledge the intimations of mortality associated with still-life painting, but the idea isn't developed. In several paintings, a crusty loaf of bread seems a prime candidate for correspondingly crusty brushwork, but, aside from having light play across the brown-and-white bread surfaces, the artist doesn't seem interested in conveying that texture. He seems intent on deliberately denying us some of the usual tactile pleasures of still-life painting. Nevertheless, his compositions and colors guarantee his work will be noticed on a gallery wall. His strategic mix of boldness and restraint is notable, if less than compelling.

Still-life arrangements also factor into the artwork of Tatiana Palnitska, who makes mixed-media assemblages variously composed of metal plates, sheets of paper, painted canvas, masking tape, and assorted organic props such as fruit or dried flowers. An artist's statement declares that these arrangements are colorful, but we'll have to take Palnitska's word for it, as they are not exhibited. Rather, the exhibit consists of black-and-white photographs of them.

These close-up shots emphasize mortality. The dead flowers seem even more dead when presented in bleak black-and-white. In the photo "The Final Movement," long-stemmed roses are scattered across a sheet of paper filled with musical notation. In the aptly questioning photo "Flower?" rotting banana peels are arrayed in a petal-like arrangement. Behind the flowers and other objects, Palnitska's nonspecific studio backdrops generally are painted or otherwise marked up so that they're evocative of the scarred walls in a tenement building.

But more than grimness informs this interesting photographic series. If Palnitska's subjects tend to be more dead than alive, her working method amounts to a permanent record of the ephemeral. This is brought out most strikingly in "Meditation on the Theme of Eden," a photo depicting a halved apple that still has its stem and a few leaves attached. The white innards of an actual apple wouldn't remain white for long, but this photograph gives that sliced apple a slice of immortality. Also, the apple is affixed to a scuffed-up studio backdrop that includes a large, primal-looking painting of an apple. Artistic themes dating back to the Garden of Eden remain viable--and, through the permanent record offered by photography, maybe even the apples themselves are in a sense still around to tempt us.

Photographer Linda Ingraham also has venerable art-historical precedents in mind. She favors religious subject matter and often uses the triptych format found in altar-adorning icons. Her imagery relies upon tight shots of hands holding symbolically resonant items such as wishbones and feathers, and she applies resin and paint to her photos to lend them the sepia-hued tones of antique pictures.

In keeping with the spiritual nature of her work, Ingraham often conjures up thoughts about relics by having real objects accompany their photographic representation. In "Palm Prayer: Wish (Wishbone)," a photograph of a wishbone in the palm of somebody's hand hangs above a ledge on which a real wishbone rests on a red velvet cushion.

The literal-mindedness of the artist's approach proves a mixed blessing in these mixed-media photographs. Although it's valid to present real objects and their photographic representation as reminders of how art symbolically captures the sacred, these photo-and-object constructions ultimately seem facile. The conceptual intentions are sound and the technical execution is sharp, but these icons are lacking in genuine spiritual aura. You may like them as photos, but you're not likely to worship them.

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