April 4–May 16, 2015
What do paintings mean today? With centuries behind us to consider, what revisions/ iterations/ interpretations/ abstractions/ appropriations do we have left to make, and for what purpose? Any image is about so much more than merely how it presents visually; as soon as a painting is declared art, it becomes freighted with historical and institutional implications. The unseen forces—sources, influences, networks, markets, histories—all loom large like cosmic dark matter, invisibly weighing it down. Bringing a painting forth to the viewer is part magic, part orchestration, part faith.
With Order of Sorcery at Big Pictures Los Angeles, Aramis Gutierrez posits that you can be oppositional by being untimely; punk by being painterly. “Painting is potentially the most embarrassing medium because of its directness and its instinctive connection to skill and taste,” Gutierrez says. “It comes off as a bare-naked avatar of who we think we are, who we want to be, and what we think is going on.” Indeed, the paintings in the exhibition are paintings he wants to make: ones that unabashedly contain a skillful and loose, romantic handling of paint. In contrast to the arbitrary and minimal markings of many post-Internet paintings, his work feels antiquated and mastered rather than sleek and of-the-moment, which is sort of uncool. But then, embarrassment is all about running that risk, and being uncool is a form of defiance.
Images, he feels, have been more relevant in cinema over the last half-century than in art, and the source imagery for the four works in the show is culled from the artist’s extensive collection of stills from B movies. Like some of his prior paintings that suspended a linear narrative and made permanent a transient moment using empty settings, these paintings etch moments of uncertainty and magic into a tactile surface. Their gothic, theatrical quality manages an air of insidious romance that is familiar beyond their impressionistic, warm palette. When I saw the paintings, I immediately thought of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781)—something a cursory art history overview has left forever imprinted on my psyche. This eighteenth-century image of an incubus sitting atop the chest of a sleeping woman, the pressing weight threatening to suffocate her in her sleep, has a folkloric resonance: we are sleeping, yet carrying on subconsciously affected by an invisible menace. Perhaps this feeling I was interpreting in the work has metaphoric implications to the art machine—a belief system as strange as any. Or maybe it just feels like familiar existential dread.
Though they share a certain aura, Gutierrez’s works are a bit lighter than nightmares and torture. They are more stagey and mysterious, if nearly comical in their fantasy. A reclining woman’s hand commands a backlit cloud of smoke emanating from her mouth (Morgana), another is poised for an action unknown behind a golden bird (Untitled [Gold Eagle]). Two masked figures face each other as lovers or in death, a robed figure shown only from the shin down walks across a sea of bodies (Sleepwalker)—we have arrived post-spell and have only rising smoke and the unclothed unconscious to help us decipher the action.
Witchy as they are, they do a lovely and, as-of-late, rare thing. Painting, like film, has the ability to suspend disbelief. In film, any one image is preceded and followed by a succession of frames that are required to get the full story, and therefore keep the viewer engaged and present in the other world of the story. Painting can easily do the same, because the painter can insert any imaginable thing
into the picture with relatively little investment—there can be smoke without fire, faith without reason, or uninhibited sorcery—and yet the painter has the luxury of not needing a pyro-technician, a physicist, an animal handler, or a wizard to achieve the equivalent of movie magic. Standing amid Gutierrez’s paintings I was incited to think beyond them; they are just pictures that someone made in the way he wanted to make them, without feeling bound by impositions set forth by external forces. But I was kept levitating—wondering what was before and after each frame. What’s more is that they made me forget: forget about the cars, about the smog, about the dread, and, as Doug Crocco, the artist running the space pointed out, they made me ignore the soaring Carl’s Jr. billboard just outside the gallery advertising a burger fittingly called “El Diablo.”