Critics’ Picks

Jonjo A, 2005, oil on panel, 35 1/2 x 27 1/2".

Jonjo A, 2005, oil on panel, 35 1/2 x 27 1/2".

Rome

Steven Gontarski

Changing Role
Vicolo del Bollo 13
November 16, 2007–January 30, 2008

Steven Gontarski’s work juxtaposes ancient references with a contemporary sensibility in a strongly evocative and personal manner. The artist's aesthetic strategy is particularly evident in his portraits, which are characterized by a range of stylistic elements and symbols—from a veil to a lapdog—that give the works a metapictorial dimension. Nurtured by a harmonious fusion of Italian Renaissance classicism and northern realism, the compositionally rigorous paintings are learned reflections on the iconography of portraiture, dense with specific references to historical works. Gontarski’s use of dark backgrounds, direct, single-source light, subjects frozen in poses, and razor-sharp strokes that resemble incised lines—particularly in Jonjo A, 2005—bring to mind Albrecht Dürer's early works. The value of material, reappropriation of age-old craft, and rediscovery of pictorial practice is emphasized by the artist’s oil-on-panel techniques: brilliantly colored renderings meticulously achieved through a skillful use of glazing. The result is formal and quite alienating; the figures Gontarski portrays seem suspended in a limbo between past and present, contemporary icons whose classical poses, ivory skin tones, and haunting gazes seem to be representations of timeless beauty and melancholy. The introspection projected by the portraits’ subjects is blunted by a loss of individuality associated with globalized and mass-mediated Western societies. It is no accident that these works’ titles, which derive from their sitters’ names, only include the initials of their surnames. The actual identities of the figures thus become less important than their roles as archetypes of the artist’s personal, oneiric, and metaphysical Arcadia.