Los Angeles

Walter Gabrielson

Cirrus Gallery

Walter Gabrielson’s perceptual philosophy is anchored somewhere in late Synthetic Cubism, his sense of content rooted in wringing the juices out of pervasive, middle-class, American real life, and, like a thousand other guys of similar situation but less quality, slightly cynical from ten years of operating in the fringes of the art world and in the semi-disreputable milieus of teaching and printmaking. His problem is one of quality vs. history—his art is, as the ghetto cigarette billboard says, “real rich and good,” but it isn’t programmed to change the short run history of painting, unless it is to stay figurative painting’s demise by convincing another serious artist or two that there’s some mileage on the old medium yet (real mileage, on a fresh road with new scenery, not dull distance on the beaten paths of academic realism, cute Pop McLuhanism, or decadent photo stuff). The question is: can quality be separated from radicality? Five years ago the answer was an emphatic no; now it should be a qualified yes.

In Gabrielson’s work—moderately sized paintings and supportive drawings (in a recent show at Cirrus)—the art quality, other than the niceties of structure (design, edge, color, shapes, airiness), derives from two properties, “narrative essence” and formalist “bits-of-business.” Both are, in the art world sense, nonradical, since they depend upon a great deal of shared cultural heritage (the sociological cliché, in particular). You can’t appreciate the essence unless you know the type; so, the subject matter is low-grade, bourgeois showbiz, drugstore, or nickel-and-dime technology: the Rose Bowl, Gene Autry, the late ’40s “underground” movies Manny Farber writes about, real estate sub-developer common sense, and variety store economics. Bits-of-business are likewise small, formalist banalities: bleeds, over-and-unders, splattered lines, washes, or a representational shape worthy of Grosz or George Price (the New Yorker cartoonist). Without invoking too heavily the argument that all styles are bits-of business—the whole, deliberate, grainy, combat-cameraman patina of most post-Minimalist art, for instance—Gabrielson’s “gritchies” are intellectually substantive because he knows they’re known, knows they carry a certain dead weight of sentimentality and beaux arts handling, and employs them accordingly, almost as irritants, to unsweeten the product.

The nonissue dialectic is best seen in a painting of a cheerleader whose essence is a saucy, dumb, cocky little cookie of energy, tinsel strength, and ego, caught in the middle of that acceptable Puritan burly-Q, the gymnasium heel-and-toe, bump-and-grind, as the short, patriotic pleated skirt flips upward to give a flash of postpubescent bottom to the daddies in the stands. (Why is this of any importance? (a) It is a social fact as revealing and therapeutic as, say, Newton Harrison’s life cycles; (b) it is an efficient critique on figurative painting, on the painful, stiff wit-panorama of Sidney Tillim or Willard Midgette, and the tedious goodies of photo-realism; and (c) it demonstrates the possibility of a genuine synthesis of graceful, economic formalism with narrative art, found now only in some film, video, and a few comic strips.) The bits-of-business are, from top to bottom: the thin, withered tube of a left arm which ends in the ghost of a palms-up-and-out wrist flip (“O-kay!”), the lateral and perspectival break in the figure at the belt line (you look twice, and in the shift recreate the body’s motionka-chunk!), the calves with the exquisite hamstring curve (the eroticism of the cheerleader resides not in breasts and buttocks, not in the obvious body, but in the subtle or unseen anatomy, in context, in gesture), and the scratchy, wrinkly combo of sneakers and socks, as the feet (and the bottom of the picture) twist and squeal.

Certainly, there are flaws: an unfortunate, faded grid (unnecessary modernist scaffolding), occasional overattention to life-drawing or conventional composition, and slightly safe, diluted color. And, over the whole oeuvre, Gabrielson runs the deadly risks of sentiment, Pop, facility, and, creeping into the artist’s realpolitik, false martyrdom and nostalgia. But these dangers are at least as great and significant as the issue artist’s pitfalls of unfeasibility, or camp-following, or both. And when, as with Gabrielson, the traps are avoided with art quality, the rewards should be commensurate: we should be able to see what the arttist has done clearly, without the fog of speculative art history.

Peter Plagens