Dreams and Fevers, currently at the Torrance Art Museum, is filled with romance, carnality, and decay; in other words, the business of being human. Rebecca Campbell, Joshua Hagler, Emily LaCour, Atilio Pernisco and Alex Nguyen-Vo address themes of life, love and death in both personal and universal terms in a show that reminds us about the power and possibilities of storytelling through figurative painting.
Pernisco’s work dominates the gallery with five large canvases. His paintings suggest the psychological content of Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy combined with the palpable fleshiness of Phillip Perlstein’s nudes. We are privy to his subjects’ vulnerabilities as they lay prostrate on bed sheets or hooked up intravenously while experiencing hallucinations, but his palette and loose brushwork soften the disturbing realities. The most striking of these is Formulas for Alleviating the Pain that depicts a male figure lying partially undressed on a hospital bed. His drug or fever induced bedside apparitions include a wailing nun, a prostitute and Big Bird. The patient, propped up against his pillow, passively gazes at the bazaar cast of characters, appearing grateful for the distraction as we voyeuristically join him in watching the drama unfold. Pernisco pays equal attention to the malady and the absurd elements to suggest the subject’s mental state or perhaps to reflect upon our collective current psychological state.
Campbell’s She Made The Sky is presumably a mother and daughter on a bed surrounded by a benign, abstracted landscape. It is a metaphorical image that could be read as either referencing the strength and purity of the parent/child bond, or as the mythic hero’s journey. In this painting, the mother and child are seen on a sort of magic carpet ride, one that is adventurous perhaps, but not threatening. The child looks backward in wonderment as the mother gazes forward, bathed in sunlight that curiously separates them from their environment. The landscape is distinctly active and impressionistic compared to the placid figures, giving the impression of movement and fleeting time. It’s a compelling image, somewhat naïve, recalling Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy for its calm center and mystery, though more domestic than exotic.
Hagler leads us into a psychological landscape that is battered, fractured and intimate in his epically titled painting, A message arrives from across the river, detailing a number of strange coincidences and chance encounters leading up to this moment. It concludes with a heartfelt metaphor about the closing and opening of doors. What is a doorway, you think. What is a metaphor. You almost forget to wonder who sent it. Hagler uses multiple methods to suggest his energetic and layered mindset, literally ripping the canvas and scraping surfaces to reveal other layers. He uses stains to evoke a looser reality and divides the composition to emphasize a narrative as well as the idea of transformation. The imagery nudges us towards the lovers who have found comfort beyond frozen rivers and circumstances in contrast to the solitary figure/messenger. A red telephone, perhaps the conduit between them, figures prominently in the center. Passages of paint (or the absence of a layer) allude to the sky and clouds but mainly serve to bind the images together as they simultaneously disrupt the surface and narrative.
LaCour shows two types of paintings in Dreams & Fevers, each stylistically very different from one another, but both intent upon obscuring the figure or actions. Her larger painting, Holding Space, is an exploration of her subject’s frame of mind or his status. Against a vertically striped field, she paints a dissipated and fragmented figure that is lost against the background. He is present, but like a visual puzzle, he alternates between disappearing and manifesting. As the title implies, perhaps he is in limbo, awaiting a verdict before a full resolution is possible.
Nguyen-Vo’s two small paintings are heavily textured impressions of nude lovers. The titles place them outdoors with an emphasis on the figures and their intimate, affectionate relationship. At the same time, the thickly painted surfaces emphasize the shape of the pairs, focusing our attention on the surface and abstract qualities. Nguyen-Vo is able to eke out a sense of the couple’s bond with great efficiency, imbuing his lovers with an unexpected grace and sweetness.
Melissa Tran and Max Presneill have assembled an excellent group of diverse storytellers in their thoughtfully curated show, Dreams & Fevers. Campbell, Hagler, LaCour, Atilio Pernisco and Nguyen-Vo examine and represent life’s varied scenarios through the use of the figure, creating tableaus that are psychological and provocative. If there was ever any doubt that figurative painting is having its day, here is your answer. The show is up through May 18.