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March 4 - April 8, 2006 at Ruth Bachofner Gallery, Santa Monica

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

Michel Alexis’ new paintings are a celebration of the craft of painting and a continuation of the artist’s study of symbolism, language, and gesture. They are a swirling mixture of invention and the seemingly recognizable; a teasing and taunting mixture of line and color that challenges the viewer to decipher what at first seems familiar and then quickly dissolves into abstraction.

The vocabulary of painting and language unite on the canvas to create elegant elegies to the abstractions of the New York School merged with the quiet minimalism of later generations. In his large-scale works, the varied use of line flirts with recognizable imagery, quickly fading into the collective unconscious. There--just at the tip of the tongue, at the back of the brain--I know that from somewhere! The greater your understanding of the history of art, the deeper the connection with the work. The mixture of colors and imagery triggers a plethora of responses related to the past.

Alexis’ paintings resemble a giant enlargement of a page of an artist/linguists notebook, with their series of quick squiggles and illegible notes. It is almost as if they are reminders of paths to explore, or of insights into the depths of the unconscious. The collage effect of the layering of “pages” seemingly pasted onto the surface further intensifies this feeling. Different colors and textures add to the randomness of the collections. Each seems to be a clue to the whole--if we could just find the common denominator to tie it all together. It is like Jean-Francois Champollion using the Rosetta Stone to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. We, however, must create our own key.

The beauty of the work lies in the sensuous blending of line and color. The colors are understated, with brief flashes of boldness that glues and binds the image. Lines are sometimes independent, serving to tie together sections of the work. In other cases they seem random, either fading into or out of view. What is their relationship, and what are we to make of the stained areas in the canvas and the running paint? Are these accidents or possibly clues to ponder? It is this layering and sewing together of parts that makes viewing so satisfying and challenging.

Presented as a small page, we can control the experience because we dominate the scale, but when Alexis turns it up, the result is dramatically different. We are engaged on an entirely different level. Details and nuance, often lost in the small scale works, suddenly play a key role. Our perceptions are changed and challenged, leaving us with a complex puzzle to ponder.

“Synesthesia #10,” 2005, oil/
mixed media on canvas, 78 x 62”.

“Synesthesia #8,” 2005, oil/mixed
media on canvas, 68 x 48”.

“Synesthesia #12,” 2005,
oil on canvas, 60 x 48”.

“Synesthesia #6,” 2005,
oil on canvas, 74 x 74”.

Also on view are a series of paintings by Nolina Burge entitled “Wood” based on her large collection of Polaroids. The artist is enamored with trees, and these are not presented as landscapes, but as explorations of our relationship with these singular entities. They serve here as metaphors for a variety of emotions, and further explore connections with ourselves, our environment, and the community at large. Her editing of the images and the flattening of space gives the works an eerie, somewhat surreal feeling. While the imagery is everyday, the presentation creates tension, giving the works their edginess. It is this very sense of unease that makes them enticing.