San Francisco

Richard Hickam, Paul Klein

Jeremy Stone Gallery

A few years ago, Jasper Johns was quoted as saying, “Art is either a complaint or appeasement.” By dint of their specific, ripe, and sometimes raucous colors, Richard Hickam’s paintings appease with an old-fashioned effusiveness which is mostly a matter of handling. The subjects—most of them human figures in boxy abstract spaces—tend to be still or in positions of flatly arrested motion or thought. Hickam’s characters exist privately. Many of them, like the imaginary moments they occupy, are made up as the painting goes along. By contrast, the nude or seminude male figures in Paul Klein’s large, painted photographs, although similarly alone, exemplify an idealist’s public distress. Klein’s planned dream images are emblematic complaints of isolation and confinement stated in general psychological terms. Commanding separate sides of a single gallery space, the works of these two artists had something to say to one another but in different languages.

Hickam is an ex-Photorealist who now works predominantly in the tradition of what might be called “unimproved” gestural realism. He’s a Midwesterner with a taste for California-type painterliness. There are Richard Diebenkorn–inspired areas of blocked-out color, dashing strokes that recall Elmer Bischoff or David Park and a nude with look-alike older cousins in Wayne Thiebaud or even Mel Ramos. But none of these resemblances get in the way of Hickam’s conviction; the energy and humor of his pictures have nothing to do with style. The profile figure of a woman in Carmen’s Crinoline, 1986, takes up an awkward pose—knees bent, back straight, head slung forward, hand splayed, in a kind of implausible dance step—against a pileup of rectangles that suggests architectural shifts. At her eye level bobs a miniaturized beach ball. The picture is done busily, piecemeal, with a different texture for each part, so that the woman’s character is delivered as a sequence of edges among other edges. All the edges clunk in the suspended moment without falling apart.

Where Hickam’s people come from is as much a mystery as the spaces they’re in. The officer in Stiff Upper Lip and the ingenue in Remembering Young Girls with Soft Hearts, both 1988, have an averted, wistful, Edwardian look straight out of Masterpiece Theater. They’re both contemporary and not, or if contemporary, they’re decked out in nostalgia wear. Even the “mini” in Woman with Yellow Skirt, 1983, has a vinyl ’60s flair at odds with the direct, present-tense body image: the torsion and pinpoint glance and mop of brown, shoulder-length hair are all perfect ’80s. It’s that rare form of studio nude that doubles as an intensive portrait of an actual person.

Hickam’s pictures thrive on their discrepancies, and his characters deepen and breathe on account of them. Discrepancy in Klein—between his figures and their settings, between the photographic sheet and the paint he applies to extend an image—occasions a perceptual duress in which nothing is real in itself. The effect is of a rabid portentousness chewing up the available space. Klein blends faint life-size exposures of models into high-contrast shots of abandoned urban rooms, then uses paint to clinch the mood. (Paint on photographic stock may be inherently gruesome.) The rooms retain bleak traces of domestic use: sinks and bathtubs glare from ratty recesses; an empty toolbox occupies an area of spattered floorboard next to a beer can. Some blue paint seems to stand for the dankness of a tiled wall, as a dull red does for bursts of flames in passageways. The men hover in the foregrounds, sometimes pinioned by beams and rafters, often bearing traces of flame. In dislocated contraposto gestures out of Old Master paintings, they betray a grisly, futile humanism. Where Hickam is boisterous and eager, Klein is dark and dour, and his images are made all the more nightmarish by the elegant malice of their fabrication.

Bill Berkson