Los Angeles

James Gill

Felix Landau Gallery

This artist was brought to notoriety by his painting of Marilyn Monroe. It seemed, with its smile frozen into a scream, prophetic of her absurd death. Gill has had an unusual sensitivity to the problems of the private individual as a public figure, painting ghostly television images or wiggy-type girls in cars in the flickering, horroresque syntax of Francis Bacon.

Gill may be seen as sustaining the problems of his actors—too much public exposure too soon. His earlier works were done in rubbed crayon and despite their virtues of imagery and anecdote they were flatly lacking in material knowledge. Gill couldn’t paint. He had a job before he knew the trade. It is to his marked credit that he had set about teaching himself oil media when he might have coasted, for a time, on crayon. He recalls the rock and roll singer who gave it up for drama school. His recent exhibition shows growth in every direction. The painting is much improved despite soupy passages. His color—where he uses it—is much improved and more somber. The raucous extroversion of an earlier red-foil background is gone.

Recent works are of three pictorial types: he continues the person-glimpsed-in-a-car, a familiar Gill trademark. Predominant in number are grisaille oils that combine painting and newspaper collage. Politicians wave at cameras, somehow aware of their flabby homeliness, the president speaks comfortingly into a hydra-headed microphone while, below, guys in Vietnam are depicted ducking bullets or trying to hold their guts in. Gill is more humane than we have seen him. He condemns no one, he talks with compassion about the terror of exposure. This theme is varied in three large paintings of the nude. Someone suggested that they might be the mistresses of the politicians and the girlfriends of the soldiers (at the same time). The notion has at least the virtue of defining the sense of Profumolike scandal that infects their surprised frontality. These are, by all odds, the best pictures of the recent group. Despite their clear debt to Nathan Oliveira they carry an authentic and fully-absorbed relation to their creator. Evidently we have surprised them in commission of an act unspeakable (the Jamesian phrase seems appropriate). As one tries to unpuzzle this portentous sense of the awful, a little dog slips quietly from the room. The girl casts a sphinxlike shadow and stares from behind her inevitable “shades.”

––William Wilson