Two unrelated facts: the French Revolution happened more than 200 years ago. Painting has been called "dead." So what's an artist doing painting the clasped hands of Napoleon and the baleful gaze of Louis the XVI?
He's kicking beautiful dust in the eyes of narrow-sighted fact-mongers, that's what.
Toronto-based Tony Scherman indulges his lifetime obsession for the conflicted past with a passion and skill and nobleness rarely found in contemporary nihilists--ahem--I mean artists. To hell with flaky installations and wishy-washy video art and trippy multimedia fodder (the stuff I usually go for, I might add): Scherman's current series, About 1789, may carry the weight of tradition, but his generous injections of the grotesque and unforgiving will have any viewer drooling over the shadowy implications. History--ugly, mean, dirty history--repeats. The blood spilled in Paris in the late 18th century, the horrors in Germany some 58 years ago, Belfast today. Humans are violent, selfish, intense creatures; give 'em an inch, they'll start a war.
Turner and Runyon Gallery's exhibit of Scherman's works, from the wall-spanning portraits (imagine Chuck Close applying his claustrophobic angles to pensive military leaders) to the scenes-from-a-movie outtakes (the aforementioned close-up of Napoleonic hands balled with tension) to grim-yet-radiating still lifes, showcase a painter's painter. Scherman's skill with the encaustic technique--basically pigment mixed with wax and applied to the canvas while still hot--is undeniably impressive and engrossing. It gives his time-machine visions a subtle, sculptural heft; these paintings suck you in like vacuums, like black holes framed by intangible, inarguable weight and meaning.
The soulful twilights of Goya, the neo-classical insistence of Jacques-Louis David, the drama of Delacroix, even the fleshy photo-realistic ugliness of Lucian Freud are evoked in these paintings, yet Scherman has forged a style all his own--hyper-painterly, reverent, bulging, pulsating. To give new life to such a potentially stodgy subject, he performs a sort of CPR, and they start breathing again, however ominously decomposed.
But the harshness is filtered by a nearly impressionistic sense of line and light (or in Scherman's case, darkness). The calculations give way to emotional interpretation, and suddenly you're facing the souls of the men who lived and died in a very real, incendiary age. They are us. We could turn out like them. Look closely, admire their legacy, and learn from their mistakes.
Tony Scherman: About 1789 runs April 23 through May 23 at Turner and Runyon Gallery, 2642 Elm St. (214) 653-1130.