Charlie Hewitt; John Mandel

Brata Group Gallery; Max Hutchinson Gallery

While the so-called photographic realism of painters like Leslie, Close, and Pearlstein is sometimes Surreal or Expressionistic, this is primarily the result of the large scale, the slightly distorted vantage point, or the bend of the lens in the photograph from which a painting is taken. Images are still observed from nature and left intact. The contemporary figurative painters who choose to sidestep straight representation for the imaginary reorganization of images seem to adopt the historical conventions of Expressionism and Surrealism. Charlie Hewitt at the Brata Gallery, for example, borrows from German and Viennese Expressionism for his distended forms and empassioned brushstrokes. John Mandel, at the Max Hutchinson Gallery, finds a model in academic Surrealism—precise realism is combined with peculiar perspective and the displacement of elements into strange environments.

Hewitt, showing paintings done over a period of years, has worked through many influences. His earliest self-portraits, with writhing strokes and tortured expressions, are like Kokoschka confessionals. The lack of form and uniformity of value, tending toward dark reds, make them difficult to read. The second series of works, some with gold paint, are modeled after altarpieces or icons with much unexplained symbolism—rings, skulls, snakes, and crosses. The smeared faces of the holy men, the sense of sickness and decay, and the attack on organized religion, are very similar to Bacon, particularly the Pope Innocent X after Velásquez. Although the execution is mannered and finicky, the organization of these paintings has become clearer, with large flat planes counterbalancing the bulky figures. This development has continued into the most recent paintings of crouching, contorted figures which allows them to occasionally escape the overdramatic. Hewitt has progressed remarkably during the years represented in the show, and if he is able to combine the flickering brushstroke of a painter like Tintoretto with the clear tectonic order of Piero della Francesca, he may be able to create compelling images.

Since symbols no longer have constant meanings, ambiguity itself can be used as a means of expression. John Mandel employs it to generate a feeling of mystery in his paintings. His figures are viewed voyeuristically from above as they stand or are suspended in eerily gray environments. Their shadows are long and ominous against the blank walls while unexplainable elements, often geometric, float in from the outside. These paintings, however, seem to be at cross-purposes with themselves. While Hewitt attempts to integrate symbolism with execution, paying his debt to modernism in the increasing clarity of planes, Mandel’s use of abstract forms seems applied rather than integral. The foreign objects, the amount of space, and the size of the figures, all seem unrelated. Painters like de Chirico and Magritte were able to effect syntheses between realism and the peculiar. But one wishes that Mandel would either look more closely into the figure or banish the figure for light in the empty room.

Lizzie Borden