New York

Luis Frangella

Hal Bromm Gallery

Luis Frangella is a classic junk artist. That is, he grafts the essence of classic art themes and techniques onto an anthology of urban debris used as support materials, thereby updating the past and historicizing the present. But Frangella’s art is no mere conceptual exercise; his works are executed with wit, flair, and, that most currently rare quality, a sense of controlled power. Avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of either academic fussiness or crude overstatement, his sculptural objects and paintings inhabit their space like contemporary icons, totemlike creations whose diffident appearance doesn’t disguise their demand to be worshiped—if just a little.

Within this clearly mapped-out territory, Frangella varies his point of view as if his definition of the most important element had constantly shifted. Sometimes the emphasis seems to be on the materials themselves, as in the oil-on-canvas works mounted on raw plywood panels, thickly painted with large brushy strokes, or in a triptych of linoleum and stamped tin on plywood. Unlike ’60s or ’70s process art, which focused literally on manipulated materials, Frangella’s objects reflect the direction of a firm, shaping guide; these constructions are purposeful and poised for metaphorical meaning. Sometimes a droll, low-key humor is pushed up front; Dream of Me, 1985, is a painting of a human skull, while in N.Y. Venus, 1985, a classical torso is combined with half an apple. Occasionally, Frangella adds an interest in color, as in his painting Nipper, 1985, of the RCA dog, who stares into some kind of psychedelic vegetable, or as in China, 1985, a portrait head of a vivid green scaly lizard which stands in for an entire country like a child’s idea of the world. Both his triptych of mute faces (with eyes painted in by collaborator Keiko Bonk) and the orange face drawn on a black car hood convey a fierce, Georges Rouault/fauvist quality with their heavy outlining, broadly sketched features, and seriously intense expressions. The climactic piece in the show, Mickey Mouse, 1985, combined elements from these several emphases in a huge hanging head of that cartoon character formed out of rough, corrugated cardboard. This eerie icon, like an Easter Island kon tiki head, condenses the emblematic power of a genuine 20th-century symbol into a grotesquely mimicked form—and then generates its own aura of power with its classical allusion to the oversized heads of antique deities. Frangella pulls off this effect without lapsing into either silliness or pomposity, traps into which many such objects wander.

If there’s a reservation about Frangella’s work, it’s that the sense of wildness is held somewhat too tightly in control. While this restraint injects a certain power into his objects and paintings, most of the works seem to accomplish only what they set out to do. Like the Mickey Mouse head, the more exciting pieces surpass their intentions to become objects of surprising wonder.

John Howell