Los Angeles

Suzanne Caporael

Krygier/Landau Contemporary Art

The look of these large oil paintings might be described in terms of dueling influences—19th-century landscape painting invaded by intermittent attempts at de Chiricoesque surrealism. Suzanne Caporael was at her best in this exhibition when she let the landscape painter in her have the upper hand, producing murky unpopulated seas and skies—emblems of turmoil—and allowing the works’ evocative treatment of nature to be the main thrust, rather than simply using it as background for some self-consciously enigmatic tableau. An example of this latter tendency included Artaud and Dr. Dardel, 1988, a picture of two figures playing patty-cake on an awkwardly realized “set” of landscape and drapery. One figure looks human and appears in a sort of Holstein-cowpatterned black and white bodysuit. The other, a stick figure with a diamond-shaped head and big eye holes, has numerals scratched along his limbs. Who is this stickman and why does he remotely resemble Gumby gotten up as a Klu Klux Klansman? It’s difficult to discern any connection between Artaud and this painting, so the name-dropping title doesn’t make it any more profound. Blue is Black, 1988, is similarly problematic. A large electric-blue wolfhoundlike dog, placed in the middle of a dark, brooding landscape, dominates the canvas. Is the artist trying to make some point about the use of different types of artificiality in painting nature? Technically, Caporael is capable of painting with skill and authority, and of combining clashing or contradictory painting styles with lucidity. But when she superimposes stock surrealist imagery onto her rippling and glowing natural expanses, the paintings become annoyingly inscrutable.

Two examples of how potent Caporael’s semiabstract land-, sea-, or skyscapes can be when left to their own devices are Sweet Potato Sky, 1988, and Cathedral, 1988. The former looks like a golden-brown cloud ceiling, which graduates from the lower left of the canvas to the upper right in a sweeping movement. The viewer’s gaze is carried along by the profusion of cloud shapes, which also resemble the flow of molecules scudding along and breaking up under microscopic scrutiny. The bottom tenth of the canvas in Cathedral is a green stripe with a little detail: a bird’s-eye view of a forest. Hovering vibrantly above, and filling the remaining nine-tenths of the canvas with a luminousness that is somehow both weightless and oppressive, is a mutable vaporous atmosphere, through which squarish windows of a periwinkle color glimmer, like fragments of a shattered aurora borealis radiating through cheesecloth. The pleasure here is in being awash in this visible ether of color and brushwork.

Caporael works well with visual affinities—for instance, holding up the “folds” in drapery, mountains, water, and air for comparison. She sets up interesting reverberations between paintings by employing contrasting styles from picture to picture. In one work, she may paint scenery with a curious stiffness, so that the piece resembles a conventional scenic backdrop. In another picture, the canvas may be taken up by what appears to be swimming liquid, gas and light feeding into each other and becoming indistinguishable, as in Blue of Noon, 1988, and I Heard You the First Time, 1987. The least successful of Caporael’s angst-ridden vistas are dominated by empty theatrical gestures. The strongest of these paintings can produce in the viewer a version of what one feels being indoors during a tempest—awe of nature and a mild sense of catharsis while remaining out of harm’s way.

Amy Gerstler