Los Angeles

Renee Petropoulos

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

In terms of painting as a sensuous articulation of lines and masses of color, Renee Petropoulos’ work is remarkable. Her surfaces are luscious; her vocabulary of color, extensive. The works’ animated bearing is both audible and seductive. Her brushwork functions as syntax. It’s rendered in an optical cadence, communicated in deliberate, tactile syllables. All of these paintings have a rational madness about them. They speak their piece in a thorough, self-possessed manner, yet their message is inexplicably maniacal and threatening. For instance, The Wreath, The Vine, 1987, is loaded with the bloodiest of red bulbs. To turn one’s back on them is to taunt the slender creatures either to drip, pop out and bite, or slice you to ribbons. The tangled wreath and vine look like barbed wire from heaven.

Through decorative and symbolic elements, Petropoulos addresses the suspicious nature of order and its proximity to chaos and violence. Her most frequently used motif is a large white mandala on a black background. The mandala is usually seen as an object of spiritual significance; it is circular, repetitious, and refers to cyclical aspects of life. But Petropoulos uses this ancient symbol as a prototype for religious and national logos in general.

In All Men Attempt the Thing and Its Opposite; Metropolis after Albrecht Dürer after Leonardo da Vinci, 1507, 1988, the mandala is placed within a leafy habitation, complete with shields and peculiar sorts of knobs and vessels. Another zany, grandiose painting (it’s seven feet high and ten feet across) that reads as austere and playful is The Quarter (Tails), The Knot—Is It Possible the Whole History of the World Has Been Misunderstood?, 1988–89. Within horizontal bands of teal and blackened violet, over a surface of loud yellowy-orange, stand a circumscribed eagle, gripping what looks like a benign projectile, and a mandala. This pared-down theater of history is highlighted by a red velvet curtain, tied back to reveal the ensuing drama.

In this show, entitled “Set free to roam the world: a study in similarities and differences,” Petropoulos has journeyed into various systems of language, to examine what means what, and how people come to the shared understandings that create language in the first place. These are not questions to be answered, but to be asked perpetually. By staking out such a large territory, Petropoulos could stagger straight into confusion or delirium, but what she’s assembled is a distinctly focused question which breaks down and becomes an index of smaller, more precise questions. Her paintings explore history’s cargo of signifiers. But the strength of the work lies in the artist’s command of her mother tongue, the language of painting.

Benjamin Weissman