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May 8 - June 30, 2008 at Bert Green Fine Art, Downtown

by Ray Zone

This tandem show at first glance might seem an unlikely pairing. However, these two bodies of work reveal some compelling affinities. Jeff Gillette is a gifted plein air painter who takes the California desert as his subject and context. His paintings have a deceptive realism that mirrors the quiet beauty of the desert. But this figurative celebration of nature is invested with ironic commentary. Using what he calls “interventions,” Gillette depicts encroachments both ecological and cultural upon the natural environment.

Jeff Gillette, "Whales," 2007,
acrylic on canvas, 20 x 60”.

Jeff Gillette, "Bell Mountain," 2007,
acrylic on canvas, 20 x 60”.

Jeff Gillette, "Sponge Heizer South," 2007,
acrylic on canvas, 20 x 36”.

In “Bell Mountain,” for example, he mountain of the same name is painted with quiet dignity below a serene blue sky in a verdant panorama. It would be an idyllic view except for the fact that in the lower left corner we see a variegated mound of trash with shelving, empty buckets and wood planks scattered amid other human rubble that appears to have been at the location for quite some time. Nature takes no notice of this spoilage, but the viewer of the painting might. The matter of fact presentation by Gillette of the indignity of such debris reinforces the power of a political statement free of hyperbole.

The painting “Whales” also includes human debris in the desert vista. But just behind the scattered trash are piles of rocks that the artist has rendered as whales swimming in the variegated scene. Gillette has also made similar interventions in other locations to create “big foot” cartoon characters out of rocks on site before making the plein air painting. Call this strategy “humor versus despair” if you will, but it’s a way to allude to the human encroachment on the natural setting without invoking volatile feelings.

In “Sponge Heizer South” Gillette depicts artist Michael Heizer’s large earthwork “Double Negative” (1969) in the Nevada desert gashed out by a bulldozer.  In the trench, however, Gillette inserts the “Sponge Bob” cartoon character as if to humorously suggest it is he who has made the trench. As a satirical answer to Heizer’s monumental earthwork, Sponge Bob may be seen as a representative in miniature of the delights of popular culture, a co-habitant of the common sphere of even high conceptual art.

The paintings and drawings of Valerie Jacobs are more subtle in their observations and paradoxes. You have to wait for the realizations of their irony to dawn on you. “Chicago Peace Rose 1945” might at first look be a botanical work of simple beauty. But wait, there’s an insect on a petal off to the side making its way to the heart of the rose.  No human intervention is necessary here for the artist to drive her ironic commentary. Nature itself can be destructive of simple beauty.

In “Concertina” a spiraling web of razor wire is painted white against a pure azure.  The wire circles upon itself and, in its musical configuration suggests to this writer the other type of concertina, a hand-held instrument similar to an accordion. Of course, no human hands can touch this material without suffering injury. Pondering the title and looking at the image, one is disturbed by the possibility of this ironic juxtaposition.

Jacobs makes delicate graphite drawings that are highly realistic. One, “Untitled (Mosquito),” depicts an extreme close-up of a mosquito feasting with its lance of a proboscis deep in human skin. Quiet intricacy is beautifully rendered here but painful o consider. As with other works of Jacobs’ in this show, the delicacy of the style stands in counterpoint to the ultimate effect of the image.

Representational art in paintings and drawing for quite some time now has subsumed the lessons of modernism, conceptual art, performance art and post-modernism. Figuration may well subvert itself, question and reinvent itself as it builds new forms of paradox and irony that are quite subtle. Such antinomies are invested in the art of Gillette and Jacobs.  Giving voice to sensibilities that are distinctly of the historical moment, representation continues to be renewed.

Valerie Jacobs, “Chicago Peace
Rose 1945,” 2008, oil and
acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30”.

Valerie Jacobs, “Concertina,”
2008, oil on canvas, 30 x 30”.

Valerie Jacobs, “Untitled (Mosquito),”
2007, graphite on paper, 8 1/2 x 6 1/2”.