San Francisco/Santa Clara

James Finnegan, Christopher Brown, Stephen de Staebler

Lawson de Celle Gallery/de Saisset Art Museum, Santa Clara/James Willis Gallery

In his recent sculptural tableaus, JAMES FINNEGAN probes into the ersatz Americana décor of fast food restaurants. Finnegan replicates ubiquitous formica counters, waste receptacles that spell “Thank You” in indented yellow letters, garish linoleum, “authentic” wood shingling, and plastic-brick wall covering that supposedly give these ’70s establishments personality.

Thrust into the neutral gallery environment, these tableaus, re-created with exact and infinite detailing, become even more grotesque. Pacific coast regionalism is eccentrically acknowledged in a wood piling and rope counter area—a curious decorator bondage effect. Finnegan’s social satire is subtle; based not on manipulation or extreme exaggeration, it relies mostly on extraction, viewing a contemporary setting from a new vantage point.

The works are not simply replications of pop culture but complex calculations into perspective and the relationship between “real” and photographic vision. The artist takes a 35mm, wide-angle lens photograph of an actual setting, calculates dimensions and builds a cardboard mock-up. The sculptural work is then constructed by looking at the mock-up through a 35mm lens and building a three dimensional tableau based on this distortion. The constructed work is then rephotographed, resulting in an image with the correct perspective.

The process is a curious one, and the actual tableau is a distortion of the form so that its perspective becomes even more obtuse, jutting into space or jaggedly spreading onto the floor. Finnegan’s tableaus are shown with a suite of pastel drawings in which restaurant scenes as well as motel accouterments such as towel racks, toilet paper dispensers, and hangers are the still-life concerns. In contrast to the machine perfection of the sculptures, the drawings are rendered in a studied, architectural style with colors tending towards iridescent decorator hues of orange, lime green, and aquamarine blue. The drawings are ironic, sometimes reminiscent of Thiebaud.

Finnegan transforms some of the more repugnant elements of Americana into objects that are disarmingly handsome. The work deliberately raises contradictions. It posits the discrepancy between photographic and “real” vision, and transforms capitalistic kitsch into good art. Finnegan draws an instructive line between life and art by making that which is intended as decoratively palatable for the masses into objects esthetically palatable for the art elite.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN’s paintings have two distinct inclinations: a concern for autobiographical imagery that maintains broader cultural meaning, and a penchant for painterly style that is visually seductive in hue and in application. The subject matter of Brown’s previous work, swimmers, athletes, and sports events sometimes rendered through the lines of a television screen, reflect the artist’s own activities as well as an interest in large, figurative compositions seen in motion. Brown has developed sensuous colors and a gestural style that suggests an imagist orientation merging with some of the expressive aspects of abstraction.

Brown’s most recent works appear transitory, less representational than his earlier paintings, subtly autobiographical and more concerned with paint application and spatial relationship. The paintings are a result of the artist’s visiting position at the art academy in Munich, and reflect elements of his travel. Two groups of work, related almost dialectically, were exhibited. The more literal is a series of eight paintings of trains, each comprising canvas modules only three or four inches wide, but joined to form lengths of five and six feet. Paint is applied and then scraped horizontally, yielding a sense of movement, and evoking a feeling for blurred imagery in the small windows. Brown’s trains have the miniaturized exactness of German toys. Perhaps it’s this that causes them to be almost a little too precious—displaying facility but lacking complexity.

The six large canvases, which measure six by five feet, do, however, expand on the travel theme, and demonstrate the progression of ideas within the artist’s oeuvre. Each of these paintings is dominated by a thick, impastoed field of battleship gray, into which other colors have been worked. Floating within these fields are series of brightly colored nautical flags, picture postcards and snapshots. Occasionally, a hinged horizontal appendage hangs off the side of the canvas proper. In contrast to the earlier, vibrantly-hued figurative works, these paintings partially subordinate personal imagery to formal concern, and pit imagist suggestion against spatial field and subtle coloration.

Brown shares some concerns with the “naive/primitivistic” self-referential artists like Hockney and Africano. But he maintains an energetic interest in abstraction, and while not thoroughly resolved, his work reflects a growth progress which is both intelligent and visually provocative.

Since the clay renaissance of the early ’60s, the ceramics movement has had a tenuous relationship with painting and sculpture. Sometimes borrowing, often imitating, ceramic artists have attempted to forge a sensibility that combines craft esthetic and tradition with a contemporary attitude. It’s a precarious position, one that was well articulated in the early works of Peter Voulkos and John Mason. But the ’70s saw a dominating ceramic style on the west coast—the heritage of the funk orientation—take the form of tedious trompe l’oeil, innocuous anecdotalism, and introverted fetishism. Process has been ranked over intellect and boutique objectness over expression. There are of course exceptions to this trend, and STEPHEN DE STAEBLER is one of them. De Staebler’s past works have taken the form of huge vessels and thrones that connote a sense of ceramic utilitarianism and history, but remain contemporary through their simplified, minimal presence.

A dominant trend in De Staebler’s work, seen in this exhibition, is elongated, free-standing, slab-constructed sculpture that combines abstract and figurative motifs. The eleven monumental sculptures are figurative forms which evolve from three-sided, sheer-cut constructions. Earlier works in this style were reminiscent of Egyptian tomb sculpture, in which the figurative elements jutted abruptly from the form. The newer work, while still following the same format, is more subdued and lyrical. The eight- and nine-foot sculptures emphasize the vertical; and the figurative elements, in contrast to earlier protrusions, appear more consistent and refined. Although still massive, these works are more delicate—crevices, fragments, and slightly askew components appear organic, not unlike rock formations. Subdued pastel shades accentuate the figurative forms emerging from the chalky-white color.

Like so many other artists working in the post-ism era, De Staebler is searching for ways to reintroduce human values into his work. In viewing these sculptures one senses an expansiveness, a shift from direct historical reference to an attitude which is more broadly antiquarian, and connotes of a kind of figurative metamorphosis involving decay and evolution. De Staebler remains poetic, but his expressiveness seems more assured and tied to the organic and suggestive possibilities of clay rather than particular historical antecedent. His work is imbued with a clarity that is refreshing in a medium overwhelmed by fabricated folk traditions, tedious fetishism, and overused puns.

Hal Fischer