View Masters

Though it may seem as if the current exhibition season has just gotten under way--and it has--some of the fall openers have already closed. But there's still time to see three marvelous shows that are just entering their final days at two of the city's most notable galleries.

These three presentations have a lot in common, and in some sense, they parallel one another. In all three, the artists use detailed explorations of external reality to create credible contemporary works (as opposed to neo-traditional ones). This is not to say that the artists take the same stylistic route; instead, the shows lay out the wide variety of artistic responses to one of the national art scene's current problems: making representational art vital in the 1990s.

For Verisimilitude, at the upstart Ron Judish Fine Arts, director Ron Judish brought together three established local talents. In the gallery's three principal spaces, Judish pairs the meticulous paintings of old master Robert Gratiot with the accomplished drawings of David Mesple. Back in the conference-room gallery, there's a small selection of photos by Paul Schrsder.

Gratiot, who's been exhibiting his work for the past 25 years, is one of the city's foremost adherents to the ongoing tradition of photorealism, which emerged in the 1960s as a kind of post-pop art. Successful photorealist paintings have the detailed accuracy of a photograph, and Gratiot is not just proficient at creating this illusion; he's a shameless showoff about it.

Verisimilitude begins with a pair of Gratiot's painted meditations on the visual effects created by mirrored surfaces. Depicting reflections is surely a standby for photorealists, but Gratiot brings it to new heights in two closely related acrylic-on-canvas paintings--"Fancy Ornaments," from 1992, and "Ornaments #3," from 1996. In both paintings, Gratiot creates a close-up glimpse of piles of Christmas decorations. The decorations, which are all essentially the same, fill the composition. The repeated use of the same form allows these paintings (and many others by Gratiot here) to function simultaneously as highly detailed representational paintings and as lively abstract ones.

Gratiot's representational paintings really ape abstracts when he depicts things that appear abstract in reality, such as the twists and folds of a clear plastic bag. In "Marble in Baggies #1," an acrylic on canvas from 1996 that is part of a large series of related works, Gratiot paints a bag of glass marbles. Because the marbles are in a transparent bag, some have been rendered as highly visible whereas others are obscured by the plastic. A detail on the right side of the painting, where the plastic is gathered up, appears to be thoroughly abstract until the viewer steps back to see it in the context of the rest of the painting.

Before Gratiot's attempts to join photorealism with abstraction by using an all-over arrangement of forms, he typically captured streetscapes. "Candy Cane, Red and White Stripes," a 1990 acrylic on canvas, is one of the first of the pseudo-abstract paintings that launched Gratiot in this then-new direction.

Hung opposite Gratiot's paintings are mammoth pencil drawings on gessoed canvas by David Mesple. Like Gratiot, Mesple is interested in conveying a fanatical attention to detail, but no one would mistake these drawings for photographs.

In the four drawings here, Mesple takes conventional formal arrangements that capture the human figure in natural settings. This may sound traditional, but Mesple's unlikely pencil-on-canvas technique and the use of heroic size give his Verisimilitude drawings a decided edge--as does the erotic character of a couple of them.

This sexual content is immediately obvious in "Incandescent Visions of a Dark Earth," in which a muscular and lithe young man, stripped to the waist, stands in a contraposto pose with his head cocked to one side. A female figure crouches at his feet. The young couple is mesmerized by a pool of light in the ground into which the woman is pointing. Behind them, shafts of light rise into the dark and murky sky. The power of this piece lies not in its enigmatic narrative but in the tremendous technical feat represented by such a large and thoroughly carried-out drawing.

The same goes for all of the other Mesples in the show, which are remarkable in many ways. A striking feature of Mesple's work is the shiny, luminous silver and white palette that results from the use of the gray graphite of the pencil on the scabrous face of the off-white gessoed canvas. In some places, Mesple uses unadorned gesso to stand in for the picture's highlights; in others, the pencil is applied in heavy black to convey shadow and depth.

Verisimilitude winds up with a group of small photographs from Schrsder's "Voyage Diary" series. These photos are a few years old, but they're of the kind he's been exhibiting for more than a decade. Using lighting, settings, props and costumes, Schrsder creates disturbing tableaux that creepily recall the Victorian era. Looking like a combination of horror and erotica is "Voyage Diary #12," a pair of 1994 silver-gelatin fiber prints joined with machine stitching. Both prints take up the topic of a corpulent woman who is dancing in a dramatically lit setting of an ambiguous nature. She's confrontational and threatening--two things that are enhanced by her elaborate headdress, which hides her face.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia