Los Angeles

Billy Al Bengston

James Corcoran Gallery

Self-consciously easel paintings, even still-lifes of a sort (with the consistency of his trademark iris), Billy Al Bengston’s work is full of art historical references—to Futurism, Cubism, Art Deco, Expressionism and, in both palette and esthetic, Matisse.

But while Matisse, obviously, uses the colors and elegance of the Riviera as a catalyst to transcendent work, Bengston seems trapped in expressing a camp myth of Southern California. It should also be said, and immediately, that his work is delightful, light-hearted and beautiful to contemplate. The problem is that so often it’s not only lighthearted, but light-headed; at its worst it lacks substance. At its best it also lacks substance, but at its best it’s so lush and charming—like a wonderful Carmen Miranda routine or the most startling Hawaiian shirt ever worn—that we hate to notice the shortcomings.

In these new works, Bengston has used his familiar vocabulary—circle, bar, iris—in a more complex formal grammar. The structure is broken down in a way reminiscent of both Futurism and John Marin, then reassembled as though with mirrors. The mirror feeling is especially strong in those paintings which use a pearly white or gray palette with fragile, iridescent colors—the paintings shimmer on the canvas like half-caught reflections of the more stridently colored works.

In what seems an attempt to enlarge his emotional range, Bengston experiments in two large canvases—Animal Draculas and El Nath Draculas—with a predominantly black palette. But like Midas in the fable, who starved because even the food on his plate turned to gold, these too come out lush and lovely.

Bengston’s work is sure and brilliantly charming—a delight to the eye, if not to the mind.

Bjorn Rye