Visual Arts

Contemporary paintings reflect the state of the art form and our mind-set

There's a fascinating duality within the art form of painting. The techniques of painting are timeless — contemporary oil paintings are produced in much the same way that they were 500 years ago — but the selection of subject matter is a contemporary choice that reflects the values of the artist and society.

Works by, say, Picasso are interesting to look at and influential in terms of technique, but ultimately, their works are so yesterday; it's the work by today's painters that draws the viewer in by presenting the modern voice.

Such is the viewpoint of the Lexington Art League's latest exhibition, Paintpresent, now at the LAL @ Loudoun House gallery.

Featuring more than 50 contemporary paintings by national and international painters, Paintpresent showcases "the paths that contemporary painting is moving down and the way artists are refocusing our understanding on this traditional art medium," says Mike Deetsch, LAL's exhibitions and programs director.

To rein in the chaotically wide range of topics that could be covered in an international painting show, the LAL and juror Bobby Campbell, a Morehead State University assistant professor of art, identified three thematic parameters for the exhibition: dense decoration, fantastic figuration and architectural anomie. According to LAL, "The selected works mirror our hyperstimulating, infinitely connected world; react to architectural spaces devoid of owners but perhaps alive with emotion; and idealize the everyday superhero, conceived out of mass media."

What that really means is that works in the exhibit, although presenting eternal subject matter of decorative, figurative or geometric shapes, are not exactly what they appear to be. The argument between what is real and now versus what is transitory and artificial is given visual life through the paintings, shaping them into immediate visual definitions of the contemporary mind-set.

Knoxville artist Bain Butcher and Lexington artist Lina Tharsing explore conflicting notions of truth and reality in their works.

Butcher's Yellow #1 is a fantastic combination of the neoclassical figure and color field painting: A woman, clad in golden drapery, is centered in a solid yellow background. By presenting two contrasting painting styles of years past within one work, a combination that would have horrified 18th-century neoclassicists and mid-20th-century color field painters alike, Butcher presents a post-modernist criticism of their all-or-nothing outlook while making use of the aesthetics of both, thus questioning the value judgment of style.

Tharsing's Forest is an earth-toned landscape painted on plywood. The artist's play between representation and reality becomes apparent to the viewer as the highlighted, light-colored tree trunks in the foreground compete for the identity of "tree" with the natural tonalities of unpainted wood evident in the background.

Operating on different lines, New Mexico artist Margi Weir's Worker/Bees and New York artist Hooper Turner's Bavaria reveal contemporary society's continuous nature.

Worker/Bees is a small panel work devoted to silhouettes: A pattern of four black bee silhouettes, surrounding a red dot to form a flower silhouette, is repeated across the work. Interrupted by a color change from black to silver, the pattern outlines the silhouette of a construction worker, complete with hard hat and hammer. The identification of animal to man and drone to laborer is eternal, refreshed here in contemporary metaphor.

Bavaria appears to be a nice, traditional still life of a Germanic kitchen table, complete with food, china and figurines — but the non-traditional written identification and pricing guide of each object reveals the contemporary attitude of the work. Turner's inclusion of modern advertising technique in a painting genre that historically presented objects of individual wealth and reminders against greed is evidence of the unbroken social value of covetousness.

The works in Paintpresent ultimately recognize that contemporary painting isn't intimidating or confusing. This is the era in which we live, and our visual vocabulary is that in which the presenting artists operate. Paintpresent offers Central Kentucky not only a look at the direction of contemporary painting, but a penetrating glance into how we view ourselves.

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