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May 17 - June 21, 2008 at Patricia Correia Gallery, Santa Monica

by Bill Lasarow

Over a decade ago British expat David Ashwell retired from the business of directing TV spots and settled into the gentlemanly business of painting the Malibu coast, where he had long since settled. Not surprisingly he has shown the grace to bring the formal skills long honed in the interest of Diet Coke sales and casting the best possible light on celebrity pitchmen and women to bear on a landscape that is only too easy to love. If the idea of a successful filmmaker spending his later years in homage to some of the world’s most attractive, not to mention expensive real estate pisses you off, this show will make you bristle. But if Ashwell cannot be placed among the art world’s cutting edge elite, he rightfully does not attempt to be something that he is not. This work cannot be dismissed as trivial.

The spirit of realism is present in this painting in terms of physical perception. The play of light and shadow is primary, providing the expressive chord the artist wishes to strike in response to the scene he selects to depict. It also very much informs the way a painting is composed. Most frequently Ashwell gives you a direct entry to an image, seducing you to take in the whole right away. He employs a variety of devices to artfully break symmetries and create multiple points of interest that engage the eye and make you spend time absorbing the details. A “View from the Latigo Studio,” his Point Dume home base, is a rich example of this. The triptych is a view looking out through a bank of windows to the sea, with the coastline fading into the distance. An afternoon sun creates powerful contrasts of cast shadows, and a handful of still life objects sit on the studio floor to tell us something about the artist and bring you back to the interior space. The distinct upward tilt of the two side panels give the bank of windows a concave shape, which with two open windows on either end becomes a robust metaphorical embrace of the great outdoors.

Color is certainly important in much of his work, through light precedes it. “Across the Bay” announces Ashwell’s indebtedness to Monet in no uncertain terms, the paint handling and Santa Monica skyline evoking the master’s take on the Houses of Parliament in particular. Brushwork is well orchestrated, but can be predictable. Ashwell favors broad expanses of sky, water, or beach to be lively, often laying in broken colors to be mixed by viewers’ eyes. Skies are made up of thickets of small strokes that have the effect of pouring down towards the horizon line. The ocean is pacific and benign, reflecting dappled light that hints at the subtle power of currents beneath the surface, and lapping waves above. Civilization occupies a small but distinct twilight zone between the dual vastness. Views of the human presence may be up close, or at a distance, and are most prominently of the architecture of the coast. It is neither engulfed by nature, nor do these modest but venerated artifacts desecrate nature. Ashwell’s paintings politely celebrate having come to terms with it.

“View from the Latigo Studio," acrylic
on canvas, triptych, 42 x 124" overall.

“Approaching Fog Bank,"
acrylic on canvas, 28 x 37".

Malibu Pier Series #1,"
acrylic on canvas, 72 x 92".

"Strawberry Hill," acrylic
on canvas, 22 x 33".

"Close Up: Face", acrylic
on canvas, 36 x 72".

To make the point that light and form precedes color, Ashwell executes some paintings in black and white. “Approaching Fog Bank” places a lifeguard station prominently just off center, playing it against a landscape consisting of four distinct horizontal bands. The beach sand is strikingly painterly, the ocean a relatively flat, dark, narrow band, and somewhat broader soft, gray band above it is the fog of the title. The lifeguard is present, small, just barely off center, and lending a much needed empathetic component to what is about as narrative an image as Ashwell is willing to concede. We are to soak up the light and the presence of the place, not get carried away with a drama.

A selection of figurative works divides the show and signals a new emphasis or parallel direction. A young boy appears in most of these, alone or posed with other children. Prominent details such as folds or cracked glass make obvious their appearance as old family photographs, so it is natural to take the image of the boy to be that of the artist. Nostalgia mixes with a felt desire to reconnect with something now long past. Then, you encounter “Close Up: Face,” a mercilessly detailed view of an aging face full of lined and folded skin and sunken eyes. This image changes the overall tone of the proceedings. What appears to be contentment and nostalgia now possesses a secret heart, a story only hinted at, a weight and a darkness that is felt if not seen. If this image does not shake the whole installation violently, it feels like the pebble that starts an avalanche.