Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fight: Alison Van Pelt by Robert A. Sobieszek, senior curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Fight: Alison Van Pelt
by Robert A. Sobieszek, senior curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

To plunge beneath in order to arrive at a surface, to ground one’s vision on the palpable where there is none, and to assault the apparent because too much is still hidden – these thoughts may be useful in approaching the paintings of Alison Van Pelt. She was trained in modern painting at Art Center in Pasadena and Otis Parsons in Los Angeles, and then was classically retrained at the Florence Academy of Art. Much of the art taught at both Southern California schools centered around conceptualism, appropriation, word/text synergy, and postmodern theory. Florence presented her with something more ancient: beautiful form, the love of looking, and techniques of painting, of laying succulent colors in oil onto a canvas, of forming images that have still to be plumbed for some fugitive essence.
Contemporary painting, especially representational and figural painting, is fraught with a love/hate relationship with the photographic image. When patently obvious the symbiosis is taken for granted, when visually redacted as a critique of our culture of images the praxis is applauded, and even when the source is obscured its presence can be felt. The photos behind Gerhard Richter’s figures and still lives are exquisitely and magically transformed into paint. The photos that act as models for Chuck Close’s portraits are critical to the scaffolding of his painted enlargements. Richard Phillips takes the faces of young modes in advertisements and monumentalizes them. The photographic covers of popular magazines of the 60s and 70s are rather melancholically vested in the teenage reminiscences of Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings.
Alison Van Pelt’s relationship to photographic images is quite direct and unapologetic, as well. Carefully choosing images that interest her, she manually copies them, simply painting what she sees, and often manipulating and enlarging their scale. So far, there is little by way of innovation; earlier painters did this as a matter of procedure. In traditional representational painting, the image on the surface of the canvas was a mere analog to the image on the surface of the photographic emulsion, only the painting was done by hand, as if that gave it an edge of superiority. Modern artists had a choice; accept the surface of the image as it had been since Alberti – as a window onto the world – or challenge that surface for what it was: a fraud, a simulacrum, a fiction. Neither realist paintings nor photographs are “windows to the world” or “portals of perception.” They are simply surfaces which someone has played with, regardless of their chemicals or techniques.
Interrupt that surface, alter it, transform it, however, and something deeper may be gotten to Man Ray knew that in the 20s when he solarized his photographs, making us look more deeply upon their surfaces. Lucas Samaras knew it in the 70s when he physically disturbed his Polaroids’ emulsions before they dried. Van Pelt also knows this, and here, she breaks from slavish appropriation of the photographic image. While her faithful rendition of her source is still wet, its oils not yet set in their ways, she takes a dry brush to subtly blend, striate, blur, and dematerialize her forms until, as it were, they become mere Platonic shadows or suggestions or hints of themselves. Hidden within the surface of the paint and not atop the canvas, her subjects take on an essential quality of becoming, of yet to be finished, of possibilities rather than definitions, Caught in some viscous primal ooze, embryonic, dreamlike as in a dense fog, her images appear more within our vision than without, or as if they were projected from us outwardly upon the external retinal field from some deep recess of memory.
Van Pelt’s latest series, Fight, grows out of her last two series which also began with the same letter: Flight and Figures. Not the dynamics of startled birds imaged in mid-flight, nor the elegiac voluptuousness of barely emergent female torsos, Fight goes right to the matter of male aggression at one of its extremes, the heavyweight boxing match. Selected stills from videotaped classic fights are the primary source for the images: Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Randy Turpin, 1951; Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Lisson, 1964; Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman, 1975; etc. The artist has discovered an extreme range of emotions in these stills, from animal violence to physical grace, from the exuberance of the victor to the despondency of the vanquished, from violence to tenderness. She also finds the beautifully dramatic and harsh overhead lighting of these old fights utterly irresistible.
Aside from portraits of celebrities or friends, this series is Van Pelt’s first foray into representing the male body, its masculine forms, its muscular physique, its martial singularity. In her series on the female form, her Venus-like Figures were pictured as strictly iconic, reverential, totemic, and purely in offering; here, in Fight, the male figures are in diametric opposition to both the earlier series and to themselves: they are portrayed as narrative, transactional, removed, and ultimately in action. Yet, while her female figures rose to the surface towards us in remote suspension, her male boxers remain just as remote, out there in some other depth, some other conflict. Van Pelt’s subjects are basic: primal mothers in iconic verticality and feral warriors in narrative horizontality.
Across this horizon, the fighters feign, jab, block, slug, recoil, clinch, and fall – fundamental steps in a complex metaphor of life, perhaps. Joyce Carol Oates may have called boxing the “drama of life in the flesh” and “America’s tragic theater,” yet many of the boxing images Van Pelt chooses to render anew show us the visual poetry of this sport, its masculine choreography, its athletic balance, its atavistic prowess. It really does matter which of the heavyweight champions or contenders was captured on film or videotape; the simple primitive nature of this complicitous and immemorial dance performed by males is sufficient for Van Pelt. The poetic essence of this dance, however, is not to be found in any specificity or particular details, but beyond them; not in the factualness of historical films, but in the thickness of the image’s transparency; not on the surface of the painting, but beneath it; not in pigments but in dreams. And dreams are never the surface of things.

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