No Fashion Victim He
For those who care about art, reading art 'zines and perusing "me too" exhibitions of contemporary art--which are, sad to say, the majority--can become dangerously deceptive obsessions.
Too often, the results are akin to watching a Martian anthropologist or not-too-bright teen-ager try to divine the meaning of human life from reading, say, Vogue or Cosmo. Only instead of concluding that the human comedy is about hooking a man or better sex or dumping 10 pounds or bagging this season's "must-have" accessory, those who pay too much attention to the art world's hype run the risk of buying into demonstrably false ideas. Like what the critic Jed Perl calls "the great myth of modern art," the notion that realism is dead. (This idea is the kissing cousin of that hoary old art-world platitude that painting is deceased.)
Nor are the art world's fashion victims confined to the mall or the outer space of flyover states. There are lots of folks in the art world who buy their own bullshit, who are irrationally obsessed with determining, in the words of fashion victim-cum-critic Matthew Collings, who's "at the absolute whirling epicenter of the artworld." Alas, even academe is no refuge; in many an art school, the hot air of half-baked theory and marketing hype have displaced the rigor of life drawing. And so it has come to the point that most group shows of emerging artists resemble nothing so much as warehouses for the severely autistic, white-walled institutions where often intelligent men and women engage in all manner of strange, desperate, idiosyncratic and futile means of self-expression.
It isn't all puffery and self-indulgence out there, however. The reality is that neither figuration nor painting has kicked the bucket; as many have noted, painting the human figure in realistic form has become just about the most radical thing an artist can do these days, and there are eager young revolutionaries doing it. A new show at Valley House Gallery features the work of one, a 23-year-old Southern Methodist University grad named Christopher Jagers.
Jagers' gallery is touting him as a rare discovery, the modern-day equivalent of finding a live coelacanth or some other species long presumed extinct. In fact, however, Jagers' paintings--all oil on canvas or board--cover well-plowed terrain. Jagers, the son of a Dallas psychologist, does inward-looking scenes from everyday life: his apartment. Friends and family. Childhood memories. Private moments. Self-portraits. Fugue states. This is familiar territory, explored in the modern era by artists from Eric Fischl to Lucian Freud. There are important differences, however. Unlike Fischl or a half-dozen other widely feted figurative painters, Jagers can actually draw.
There are others, as well. Jagers' brooding psychological narratives do not set out to shock; he does not do masturbating adolescents or nude 300-pound performance artists. (Or maybe they were left out of the show; this is Dallas, after all, a fact the gallery acknowledged by refusing Jagers' request to put a nude portrait of the artist as intellectual on the show's invitation.) This is not to say the subject matter is sunny, or anti-modern, or for that matter easily deciphered. The canvases, tableaux from modern life--the artist's own, for the most part--include psychologically complex portraits and parables with the narratives partially missing or painted over. Like modern life, the pictures are full of conundra and ambiguous gestures. There's a 40-by-60-inch close-up of a hand (Is the owner dead? Asleep?) on grungy gray carpet in a room with peeling paint. The artist in the shower, hidden behind a shower curtain, parts of his shadow mysteriously missing. Beds, made, unmade, half-finished, occupied by mysterious lumpen figures or by no one at all. A mother and son playfully butting heads--or perhaps actually engaged in struggle. A self-portrait in meditative mood, with the artist's doppelgänger sitting on an identical couch from other angle, facing himself, one passive, one aggressive.
Jagers is the most deliberate of artists. He approaches each picture as a problem; each decision is thought out ahead of time, each color pre-tested, a new set of brushes and artists' oils bought every time. He finishes each canvas before he goes on to the next. The results recall artists from Manet to Hopper, and yet at the same time are utterly up to date. Jagers paints from digital photographs, and several paintings, such as "Shower," retain odd distractions produced by the digital lens. He is not, however, married to the images from which he works. Unlike photos, the paintings do not continue inexorably from sharp focus to blurred background. Instead, Jagers juxtaposes blurry passages implying motion with frozen, well-defined ones in the same picture plane; in many paintings, he exaggerates the degree to which background or foreground are out of focus. The purpose of these distortions seems to be to create mystery, as in "Mother with Child," where the faces of mother and son are blurred, a strategy that prevents our accurately reading the situation. Are they angry? Are they laughing? Similarly, in paintings such as "Theseus in the DMA Labyrinth," are those louvered blinds, or stairs? Is the exaggerated out-of-focus effect intended to reflect the artist's state of mind, showing how much more real the art seems to Jagers than its setting? And is a parable intended? Is Jagers comparing the DMA to King Minos' palace, where the minotaur was kept? And what is the meaning of the guard in the wheelchair? Is he, like Ariadne, supposed to help the hero flee?
A serious and ambitious young man, Jagers eschews popular-art sources, alluding instead to classical myths and art-historical sources. In this show, the references range from Greek myth to Manet to SMU painting profs. Jagers is not completely anti-modern; he alludes as well to contemporary cinema, and the angles of his compositions indicate some familiarity with Toland's rules for heightening dramatic tension in film shots by tilting the angles of motion. He is fascinated as well by the effects of light, which he explores with amazing precocity. In paintings such as "Quiet Is Born," one can practically feel the heat of light rays on the wall. In others, like "Theseus in the DMA Labyrinth," Jagers employs multiple light sources, creating definition in some places and ambiguity in others. As in life, some things can be seen clearly, while others remain obscured.
The work is not without weaknesses. Given Jagers' virtuoso rendering of hands and bodies, his faces often disappoint; invariably they are blurred, inscrutable masks, impossible to read. This may well be deliberate, like Jagers' decision to leave the faces in framed background pictures and the spines of books deliberately blank, generic, but the number of times it's done makes it seem a bit of a cop-out. Similarly, the purpose of other painterly dodges is unclear. Thus we are treated to super-finished bedclothes on a barely sketched-in mattress, the white gesso contrasting with the rich, tactile fabric. In several canvases Jagers seems to have painted over narratives. In "Vestiges," for example, we see the artist's father standing in a driveway, clad in haute parental geek: flimsy Nike running shorts, black socks, nerdy shoes and fishing hat, complete with cigar stub dangling from mouth. The father appears to be talking with someone--perhaps the son--who is lying on the ground. And that's all we get; the rest, fully two-thirds of the canvas, has been painted over. Is this selective overpainting intended to mimic the effect of memory, selectively editing, mercifully blotting out mortifying teen-age memories (although that outfit does seem to be permanently burned into the artist's psyche)? Or is it merely the self-doubt of a young painter changing his mind yet still trying to churn out canvases for his first solo show?
Whatever the purpose, the larger meaning of Jagers' work is crystal clear. This is not a young man obsessed with channeling the Zeitgeist, with chasing a cheap and unearned notoriety. Jagers is that rarest of contemporary artists, someone serious about honing time-honored skills and techniques. He clearly conceives of painting as a worthy pursuit, even a profession, rather than as a device for capturing his Warholian 15 seconds. In that sense, he is the most radical of modern thinkers, and a young man with a future is worth watching.
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