San Francisco

John Altoon

De Young Museum

Altoon shares with a number of artists on the West Coast, and particularly in the Bay Area, a curious predilection for shapes which are perhaps visually best described as grotesqueries or gargoyle-like in character. The manner in which Altoon uses these shapes is even more interesting. He and the materials he uses explode on the canvas; the explosion remains when the painting is ended, there being virtually no re-working of the surface. The picture makes it or it doesn’t make it. There is little groping—with paint—and none of the day after day pushing of paint about in order to lock the images into proper relationships, ordinarily common practice among painters using the complicated formal relationships Altoon employs.

The implications of Altoon’s art are sexual, heiratic and intuitive. At first glance the works look as though Arshile Gorky was a prime influence, but a more likely archetype is Clyfford Still. A fruitful comparison can be drawn between Altoon’s and Frank Lobdell’s paintings. Both artists use similar imagery, but Lobdell constantly revises and works his pictures until, in his best work, a terrifying quality, analogous to religious fanaticism, emerges. This quality is the real subject matter of the painters who employ the grotesque imagery described.

James Monte