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November 17 - December 22, 2007 at Jancar Gallery, Midtown

by Mario Cutajar

"Waiting for Horsemen," 2007,
gouache on paper, 29 x 46".

“Rabbit," 2005, oil
on linen, 26 x 34".

“Yellow Vase," 2002,
oil on linen, 26 x 22".

Tame," 1993, gouache
on paper, 34 x 54 1/2".

The adroitness with which Judith Linhares deploys color and form in her recent paintings endows her images with a force that gets them tagged as visionary. That tag has its merits--the artist confided to a BOMB magazine interviewer that in the '70s she spent six years acquiring the technique of lucid dreaming with the aid of a hypnotist. But it also threatens to give short shrift to the painterly dimension of her work, which is the product of a lifelong engagement with the constraints and potentialities of painting. The force of Linhares's paintings, which combine exuberant robustness with otherworldly luminosity, is not the product of some facile expressionism but of a hard-won struggle with the history and materiality of the medium. And the proof of this is that while certain themes in her work have remained constant, their treatment has changed over the years. Figural tendencies, which in her early work seemed hesitant and skeletal, have been fleshed out and developed into a style that has taken its own transgressiveness in stride and is now free to display its idiosyncrasies without apology or excessive self-consciousness.

Born in Pasadena in 1940, Linhares's roots were in the beatnik circle around Wallace Berman. At the age of 17, she moved to the Bay Area and studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts. She absorbed a host of influences ranging from Bay Area figuration to Mexican art, and in the course of the '60s participated in the countercultural upheaval that made San Francisco synonymous with flower power and psychedelia. Among her friends, she counted Robert Crumb and Terry Zwigoff (who would go on to direct “Crumb,” “Ghost World,” and, most recently, “Art School Confidential”). The antiauthoritarian politics of the time propelled her in the direction of feminism, which she understood as part of a larger quest for "a nonhierarchical way of participating in the world--to be taken for who you are, not what you own." Her interest in figuration enabled her to introduce overtly feminist themes alongside Surrealist and Symbolist imagery. In a gouache from 1976, for instance, a monstrous mermaid examines a puny sailor through a telescope as he impotently displays his phallus/anchor.

Linhares achieved prominence in 1978 when she was included in Marcia Tucker's notorious "Bad" Painting show at the New Museum. The show also included fellow Californians, Charles Garabedian, Jim Alberstson and Joan Brown. These people had been pursuing their own quirky brands of figuration for decades in defiance of the dominant art world trends of the time, in relation to which their work appeared as, at best, unclassifiable and, at worst, retrograde. Following the press garnered by the "Bad" Painting show, in 1980 Linhares moved to New York. Nevertheless, when "bad" painting did come into vogue in the '80s, it was the younger Neoexpressionists who reaped the rewards. When "bad" became "good," the field was quickly taken over by hyperambitious art school graduates flaunting the results of their wretched education. Still, as Jerry Saltz noted in a recent review of Linhares's work, the surging art market has lifted the boats of a number of accomplished older painters who might otherwise been left to languish in obscurity. And the newfound attention her work is getting coincides with the maturation of her imagery and a cleansing of her palette in the direction of higher-keyed and more decisive color contrasts that evince a self-confidence not quite in evidence in her earlier work.

The paintings in this show date from 2003 to the present. More than half of them are of female nudes in landscape settings. Linhares has stated that the dynamic that animates these works is the tension between repression and abandon. "In my fantasies I am a wild woman of nature, and in reality I am the daughter of American Protestants, people who came from Scotland to California three generations ago." At the formal level, this tension plays out as a wrestling match between abstraction and figuration, chromatic excess and containment.  The beauty is not in the resolution but in the dynamic itself, which yields a glimpse of an almost limitless inventive power.