If these paintings could talk, I'm pretty sure they'd tell me to piss off. But after that, I bet they'd hand me a stapled 'zine, black and white all retro style circa 1993, and invite me to a show in a warehouse for that night. They'd glare at me and then we'd share a potluck meal in a public park. This is the tension -- a push-pull between invitation and rejection, engagement and scorn, optimism and nihilism -- that runs through New World Boredom (Novus Taedium Seclorum), an exhibit of paintings by James Bradley and Erin Allen on view at Maniac Gallery through July 31, 2009.
The work is a little messy and a little mean. Bradley and Allen, both recent graduates of the MFA program at California College of the Arts and both originally from the Los Angeles area, use text and rough gestures to address, disturb, and occasionally amuse the viewer. Bradley favors references from literature and philosophy; Allen takes his from pop culture. Both make paintings that take on big ideas but purposely undermine their seriousness.
In "The Likelihood of a Terrorist Strike in My Bedroom," Bradley has painted a large canvas with maroons and blues, visible brush strokes, and the words, "My problems are so metaphysical it's embarrassing." It paraphrases a quote from Jean Paul Sartre (I didn't know this, the artist told me) and epitomizes the contradictions this work revels in. Because there's nothing metaphysical about the painting -- it's crude and the tones are rich and the letters drip paint. It exists solely as a physical object, no "meta" involved. In "Portrait of Melvil Dewey No. 3," also by Bradley, white squiggles, a little like cake frosting, a little like airplane trails, coarse over an obscured portrait underneath. Dewey, the father of the organizational system structuring our libraries' shelves, has gotten a pie in the face. The initial act of portraiture is reverential, the follow-up flippant.
Allen's work follows a similar trajectory. In "Untitled (After 'Butt is it art?')," the viewer is confronted with a recognizable figure. The back of Beavis's yellow head is set against an abstract painting. He's thinking about whether the painting is "art" or not. Oh wait, it's Beavis. He's not thinking about anything. The painting addresses a big idea (the constantly changing definition of "art") but then makes a joke out of it. (See comment on reverence and flippancy, above paragraph.)
But some of Allen's work feels less like a joke, more like a disappointed decree, and this is the work I like best. "Never Forgive" consists of a black Christmas tree against a gray background, the painting's title written above it. It's beautiful and I'm not sure why. Maybe because it inverts Christmas and its meaning; or maybe because it feels like a well-earned and bitter sentiment. You don't reach such a sad and forceful conclusion if you didn't first believe that forgiveness was possible. It's like a fall from grace, and the glimpse of earnestness hits you in your gut.
I don't know if I've made this clear: there's something about both artists' work I love. Mostly for the way it pretends to be about nothing but makes you feel something. Or for those rare instances in which emotion edges through the sarcasm. It's like those kids dressed in black who hung out on the far edge of the soccer field during junior high lunch. They want you to look at them, but they don't want you to understand them. And they certainly don't want you to know what they're really thinking or feeling. But you see, the less I understand and the less I know, the more I want to look.
New World Boredom (Novus Taedium Seclorum), is on display at Maniac Gallery, 387 17th Street, No. 204, Oakland, through Friday, July 31, 2009. The gallery is open Saturday and Sunday and by appointment. For more information, call 510-388-4417 or go to www.maniacgallery.com.