Hey, Mr. Spaceman

The last time Drew Daleo showed his art at Gallery 414, he seemed stuck in a rut of war machines and military imagery that some people liked and some hated. If you didn't fancy the content -- World War II bombers and fighter planes -- it was hard to get past it and consider other aspects of the work. Daleo's subject matter seemed so clichéd, so "boys' toys," that it was easy to yawn and wander away. Daleo suffered the same sort of criticism that happens when women artists can't get past tired feminist content in their work. Get on with it, a new century of art lovers is wont to holler. Show us something new!

But that was November 1998, and Daleo's work was fighting with two other artists' in a group show at Fort Worth's only cooperative gallery. Now, he's back with a whole new frame of reference, and his 14 new paintings must stand alone in his first solo exhibition. "I was so sick of those planes," Daleo says, throwing up his hands, spreading long, thin fingers in a gesture of exasperation. He's 35, quietly intense and soft-spoken. He grew up in Beaumont, but has lived in Dallas since 1990. His dark eyes and hair are a testament to Italian heritage, but he has pale skin. He's thoughtful, pausing almost too long before he speaks. "It's not like I thought about what I did in the past, but it's not like I didn't think about it either. Things run their course. You live, and things change. You develop new interests."

He calls this show Disco-pression, which, until he begins to explain it, makes no sense. How could these images of strange astronauts and Smurfs in oddly fractured environments have anything to do with disco? "I had spent time studying disco balls," Daleo says. "I was just playing with light. Impressionism was the study of light, so I called this hyperstudy 'disco-pression.' It doesn't mean anything serious, though."

Daleo's figures have an animé feel, particularly in the faces. Picture Speed Racer in a NASA helmet, complete with black earphones, and you get a sense of the guy in "Spacewalk.29036." For "Assassin," though, Daleo deviates from the animated faces to paint a stark and scary, bearded space warrior -- something akin to Jean-Claude Van Damme -- to set a more sinister mood and elicit a different response. The viewer is captivated by the figure's face in this piece, and the interesting, dramatic background fades in importance.

Daleo puts random numbers with text in his titles to play up the space-age, new-millennium, technological theme. "Technology is such a huge part of our current culture, and I think these images are a part of that," he says. These paintings speak to the disconnection of humans in a technological world as well. Daleo says he completed most of the work this year, and all of it since October. "I wanted something new and fresh," he says. "I wanted some kind of space-age thing, and it's ironic that they're figurative. I really hate figurative paintings -- 99.9 percent of it. But I like these, because they're my idea of a new man or a new figure for this new century."

Daleo's shattered colors and fractured images are mesmerizing in the warren of small white rooms at Gallery 414. They are all bright; if the backgrounds aren't swirls of intense, marbleized color, then the figures leap off the canvas in blood-red space suits. Daleo uses a paler palette for the red-suited pieces, so the lone figure seems more isolated yet more dominant than in the vibrantly colored pieces. In "Starwalk, 1999" the recurring red-suited spaceman tumbles in a riotous universe of furious color. Each canvas features a single figure, except for "Spacemen.29072," the largest piece in the exhibition. Four men are arranged in one of Daleo's odd environments, and each seems to be posing for an eerily fractured portrait.

"They are portraits," Daleo says, "and I've painted portraits before, but not like this. Some of them are so new, these generic space guys. They're so generic, yet they're portraits." Daleo says he placed most of the figures alone in an environment to add a sense of mystery and vacancy, depicting a human being, or the occasional Smurf, as emotionally alien. "You get the feeling they're strangely on their own." He expects viewers to be disconcerted at first with his space-age portraits, even though portraiture is historically comfortable for most people. "We all relate to the figure, and we have for millions of years," he says. "Think of the great figures in art and their pathos, energy, ecstasy. We're drawn to them."

But Daleo's portraits are cold and his figures flat, broken up by refracting views through clear, solid cubes that look like ice. The artist set up his compositions by placing toy figures in bottles or basins of ice water. He photographed them, and then chose those with the best effect for his paintings. "I set up little scenarios, little environments. The floating ice was a way to fracture the image and get a more interesting image," he says. The Smurfs were early experiments, and he included three in this show to provide comic relief.

Another interesting technique in the work is Daleo's series of "zoom-in" sections of the larger work, crafted as a separate, smaller portrait. Each close-up of the figure's face is painted in less-disjointed detail. In "Star Capsule.25901," Daleo creates a tightly cropped view of a space pilot, and the controls and clear canopy of his spacecraft are revealed. Astute students of Daleo's work might stop at this point. Planes, again? Star Wars? "You can't do anything totally separate from what you've done before," Daleo says. "There's a relationship, whether you plan it or not." But he insists this series is not directly related to the war planes series; instead, he says, it feels completely different. "It was this punctuated moment. I had this random idea, and that sounds so 'touched by God.' But I think everyone has these moments where an idea falls out of the sky."

For all his good intentions and sincerity about the newness of this body of work, Drew Daleo's still fixating on action figures and flying machines, prompting one 11-year-old boy on opening night to declare that he wanted to be an artist. The paintings in Disco-pression are infinitely more layered and technique-obsessed than his previous work. In that sense, they represent a level of maturity and refinement that the quirky content belies.

"It feels like a gradual evolution," Daleo says. "I've painted three shows' worth of work -- easy -- in a year." He laughs. He selected these 14 paintings as the best of the last 30 he created. "The feedback at the opening was good," he says, although sales were off. Only one viewer was moved to make a purchase on opening night. The paintings are priced on the high end of a co-op gallery's typical fare, from $1,000 to $3,000.

"I learned how to price my work from Dave Hickey," Daleo says, chuckling as he recalls what his former University of North Texas teacher, who is now a well-known art critic, told him: "'Never sell a painting for less than it costs to buy a gram of cocaine.'"

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Annabelle Massey Helber