Arts & Culture » Arts

Bland Expressionism


Elliot Smith Contemporary Art

Belinda Lee's new paintings depict solitary human figures in the center of the picture as seen through a veil of rain, smoke or shadow. These men and women are engaged in benign activity: standing, smoking, walking, waiting. Rain falls as a series of hatch marks; smoke circles in spirals or stains the atmosphere with frenetic brush strokes. The surface is encrusted with paint, rough-hewn as tree bark.

Lee tries to lend some intensity to these banal scenes through the use of loud colors. Bright orange dominates in "Woman Running in Orange Field"; lime green in "Man Standing in Rain"; rich blues in "Women in Blue World." She also tries to activate the pictures with an anxious movement of line. A blue hand outlined in orange, "Gray Smoke," is painted as if the artist were attempting to hurriedly recreate, or erase, a bad dream.

Although these works are atmospheric -- so much so that they are more about the veil through which the figures are seen than about the figures themselves -- they are dully static. Only in "Woman Running in Orange Field" is there the suggestion of a figure emerging, ghostly with a green outline. It's the only figure among these paintings that contains a compelling presence -- eerie, beautiful, seductive -- the others appear mired, fixed within the artist's worn strategies. The earthly scrim (rain, smoke, shadow) through which these figures are seen fails to contribute perspective or dimension to these paintings. Everything's surface, and because everything's surface -- with depth of field eliminated -- there's little to entertain the eye: a single central figure in a field of color, rain. A more adept painter could do much with this, of course, but Lee's limitations as a painter become more evident as she limits herself to a visual monotony. The eye has nowhere to move looking at these paintings, and there is nothing in or about the paintings that moves the viewer. Despite the suggested veil, the eye settles on but is given no way to look through.

The only surprise to be found in Lee's new work is how dated it all feels. The edgy outline of a hand, the grim outline of a face muted by green smoke, swirls emanating from cigarettes as a child would draw smoke from a chimney: these have all become neo-expressionist cliches. There's the feeling of deja` vu, or that the Elliot Smith gallery is a time capsule that has slipped back into the early '80s. But there is not the feeling of a mind engaged with the intense inquiry of a form of representation that may or may not be out of fashion. Rather, these paintings stand as evidence of an artist who has painted herself into a corner.

In a severe miscalculation, Lee makes reference to three predecessors in "After Millet, After van Gogh, After Bacon" with the image of a sower that is common to all three. The reference is more foolhardy than bold. Lee doesn't need to have anyone thinking about those painters while viewing this exhibition. Take Bacon, who also worked with a central figure but placed that figure in surroundings not unlike a stage. Bacon didn't paint figures, he painted drama, the soul in the process of collapse. Inherent in Bacon's work was the daring of the artist engaged in the precarious act of making, painting himself into, and out of, trouble.

Lee doesn't make obvious reference to painter Susan Rothenberg -- whose retrospective a few years ago at the St. Louis Art Museum remains one of its most memorable exhibitions of a contemporary artist -- but the influence is unmistakable. Again, Lee's work fades beneath her better's shadow rather than rising to the challenge. Where Rothenberg exposes light in her frenetic, expressionistic canvases, Lee draws the shades.

In Gallery II at Elliot Smith, Michael Swisher has delved into the potent religious narrative of the Stations of the Cross, as rich a storehouse for visual interpretation as any in the Christian tradition. Depictions of the Stations appear in small churches and great cathedrals throughout the world. In contemporary art, monochromatic chieftain Barnett Newman created one of the most sublime rooms in the National Gallery with a sequence of nearly colorless "zip" paintings that offer an imaginative contemporary entryway onto the Via Dolorosa. Locally, Bill Christman created a memorable installation on the Forum for Contemporary Art's third-floor gallery combining found objects and the artist's own expository commentary. The Stations contain limitless room for artistic expression.

Swisher, like Newman, re-envisions this narrative sequence through abstraction. Unlike Newman's, Swisher's paintings are small and rich with color. With each Station comes a change in atmosphere -- sometimes a subtle shift, sometimes a radical one. Station 1, "Condemnation," begins the sequence in brooding, dark tones, the picture divided by a gold line and what seems to be the faint outline of a cross. By Station Four, "Mother," the scene is suddenly vivid, first-of-spring green. Swisher's utilization of line shifts throughout the sequence -- a faint cross becomes four parallel lines, or becomes a single line dividing the picture, becomes a line erupting through thick atmosphere or becomes a line submerging into the dense weight of color. A line becomes a horizon, a wall, a square.

But most pleasurable -- and at times precious -- about these paintings is Swisher's use of color. Oil paint was invented to more exquisitely render flesh, and Swisher is mindful of the sensual vigor of oils. These little squares of color are a feast of passion, Christ's and our own.

Standing alone, the individual paintings lack the power of the narrative they refer to. It's unfortunate to see them being sold separately, but artists and gallery owners got to eat. In Gallery III, a group of Swisher's abstractions lack the intensity of the Stations, becoming more decorative than evocative. But a visit to Gallery II while Swisher's Stations are still on view offers a thoughtful exploration of the tormented flesh and the redemptive spirit of God and art.

The paintings of Belinda Lee and Michael Swisher are on view at Elliot Smith Contemporary Art through May 2.

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