Sometimes, I’m afraid to go to art exhibits for review purposes. Sometimes, it’s fear of the subject matter, for whatever reason. Fear that I won’t “get it” in the way the artist meant. Surely, this puts me in the same boat as a lot of people, whether a visit to the gallery must be followed by a review or not.
So it was with “Jobbers, Heels and Faces — Robert McCann,” paintings inspired by professional wrestling at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock: A) Pro wrestling isn’t exactly my thing. In the dark ages, my childhood, pro wrestling was Saturday afternoon television fare, something to dread. B) The images sent by gallery director Brad Cushman included an image of a wrestler urinating on a smashed car, an updated Hieronymus Bosch image out of hell.
Yet, A) Cushman could identify the wrestlers in these scenes and on a tour was enjoying them immensely and B) students at UALR instantly identified the wrecked car in McCann’s “Dollar Tree” as the car in the “Dukes of Hazzard,” creating another touchpoint in what is an otherwise surreal body of work, set not in the ring but in locales of icky American commercialism: Outside fast-food joints on streets lined with cheap stores and crass billboards.
The wrestlers and other characters are chunky and painted in static poses, as if they were dolls posed by the artist; they are McCann’s version of history painting. Inspired, Cushman said, by static damage you might see on worn-out VHS tapes or bad transmissions, McCann has added abstract impasto brushstrokes creating multicolored chevrons over sections of the paintings. Other places in the paintings are thick globs or smears. In places, thin lines of pink and green form grids over the images; elsewhere diamond patterns fill in the background.
Paradoxically, the abstract swipes add a bit of reality to these bizarre scenes of costumed men engaged in fisticuffs on the streets and in the shopping malls, turning the scenes into dramas rather than true history.
McCann himself says he has two goals in his work: to engage the viewer “with the intersections of role-playing, fiction, fantasy and history; and cause the viewer to reflect “on the relationships between painting, time and the body.”
More proof that painting is not dead can be found in the Maners-Pappas gallery across from the McCann show. Douglas Bourgeois’ “Awakened by These Dreams” are scenes of fantasy painted in the most mind-boggling meticulous hand, one-hair brushstrokes that create tiny live oak leaves, palmetto blades, a man’s tattoos. Bourgeois falls in what in the 21st century appears to be the school of the obsessive mark-making, though many of those artists are working abstractly. Bourgeois uses a hyperrealistic brushstroke to create work that is representational but not realistic; the lines don’t create dimension. There’s a lot to look at here: In “Detour,” a man carrying a suitcase and a lantern is walking through a forest of sinuous and broken trunks of trees under a full moon; a tiny compass lies on the ground between him and a green metal lawn chair. In “Lullabye,” a skull-faced robot is connected to a heart in a bell jar atop a record playing, one supposes, the music by the woman who appears where the robot’s heart should be. In “St. Anthony Appears to Tony,” the saint, with a flat halo of gold leaf, has appeared in an attic bedroom wallpapered in Mary’s burning hearts; Tony is shirtless, tattooed and has a black-blue 5 o’clock shadow. These offer often funny, always fascinating narratives.
Yes, you have to park a distance from the Fine Arts Building at UALR to get to the galleries. Don’t let that stop you; these are fine exhibitions. The McCann show goes down March 4; the Bourgeois show goes down Feb. 26.