The first time MaDora Frey and Jean-Pierre Roy had paintings on view in Seattle was this summer, in a group show on the suspense and apprehension of contemporary life. Frey's painting, lit from one side like a studio photograph, showed the legs of a deer and of a girl in strappy heels, resting next to one another in a dark clearing. Bestiality? Allegory? A pair of hunting victims? Roy's painting showed the detailed, smoking rubble of an unpopulated concrete building with a giant bite taken out of it. No need to suss out the wartime implications there.
Roq La Rue Gallery owner Kirsten Anderson plucked the two artists out of the group to invite back for concurrent solo shows that would intentionally deviate from the gallery's "lowbrow/pop surrealism" focus, meaning mostly figurative painting influenced by animation, comics, and kitsch. Technical skill in rendering has always been a point of pride in the lowbrow movement, paired with an "outlaw" sensibility, as the gallery describes it, that bucks cultural refinement in general and eggheaded contemporary art in particular. This is art for people who don't pretend they don't like TV, who eat up movies and cartoons and video games because these are the real, constantly refreshing media of contemporary life—but want their art in traditional paint, not photography, video, or even installation. (This is a curious preference, but we'll leave it for now.)
All this backgrounding is merely to say that with the Frey-Roy show, Roq owner Anderson is sidestepping the usual premise of her gallery to present another one: Check out two emerging artists doing "straight-up contemporary painting," as she wrote in an e-mail. Frey and Roy are figurative artists like the others at Roq, but they feel more like academicians. Anderson is defying the laws of her own successful gallery and, not surprisingly, her usual clientele has responded with a resounding lack of interest. It's always going to be easier to sell Retrorama! and Tiki Art Now 3. But I admire the risk she's taking.
Lofty classicism with criminal tendencies is Frey's stock in trade. In the painting Little Quiver, she places a girl, white as a ghost or an angel, lying on her back on a river bank, one leg drawn to her chest, hidden under a spray of leaves from a hunched-over man rowing by under a black-cloud sky. The girl resembles the mythical Danae receiving erotic divine intervention, and the double entendre of the title implies orgasm. But what is the role of that old man? Is he even old?
Style-wise, Frey is tapping directly into the romantic-symbolist well, merging animals and humans in monstrous piles of psychological suggestion. In some cases, they go way over the top (Reluctant Victory, Mother's Milk), but in others—Carriage and The Fix—she channels a frantic energy that relates her to the best of the weirdo-grotesques, Blake and Goya. The Fix, for instance, is a mad, drooling goat with snakelike green eyes and sharp teeth rearing up in the darkness. The soft focus of the painting style and the brown da Vinci palette pushes the creature into full, terrible clash with the gentility of painting itself.
In appearance, Roy and Frey contrast. Her surfaces are scumbly, his glossy. Her touchstones are mythology and painting, his are science fiction, noir film, video games, and TV-news war footage. But they share a central commitment to making mysteries. Sometimes, it must be said, they fail, but both painters show surpassing flashes, too. Overall, I'm partial to Frey's lusty engagement over Roy's cool architecture.
He achieves it by using repeating motifs: the bombed-out building, the rocket tracer, the nuclear smoke, the indeterminate detritus (this reminds me of Chester Arnold's apocalyptic overviews), and the tiny dots of warm light as the only human presence, all seen at a nihilistic distance. (I have no idea why he paints some of his panoramas in triptych format; I don't see any reason for it.) In a few cases, as in The Emissary, where camels at an oil bunker are under attack, the real wars of the Middle East are not far from Roy's imaginary zone. But he plainly tries to keep away from the literal. My favorite of his paintings is the unusual The Threshold of Great Things. A beautiful, silvery-blue object that could be a mangled car or building or machine is tucked into a hillside in a foreground that glows a comforting blue. The object and the dimly lit land are refracted into cubist-futurist shapes that keep the picture from being fully read as a landscape. Just over the top of the hill is Armageddon, rising up in flames, like the 18th-century concept of the terrifying sublime in nature, that faceless, unknowable, threatening force beyond comprehension. For its power, it relies on mystery.
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