New York

Lawrence Gipe

Shea and Beker

Lawrence Gipe’s strange and ambiguous “Krupp Project” is named for a dynastic German munitions manufacturer, whose head served a ten year war-crime sentence after Nuremburg. A group of highly stylized industrial tableaux, these paintings of steel-smelting plants, train factories, and the like, are all rendered in a kind of hot, dramatically lit style derived from World War II propaganda films and hortatory posters. Beneath each work is a painted slogan, most often in German, extolling the virtues that, Krupp apparently enforced: loyalty to the firm, the country, and the work ethic. These works are deliberately sanctimonious and creepy: “Krupp without steel is like a woman without the lower portion of her body,” reads the slightly ungainly translation of one; another says, “For the blessing of the employees and of the whole German people”; and several others ominously proclaim, “Necessity knows no law.” A few other pieces scattered throughout the show depict American scenes, among them a dramatic view of Rockefeller Center seen di sotto in su through the stripped-down globe in the arms of the statue of Atlas. In the sky above, a formation of planes flies by; at the bottom edge of the canvas the word “COMPLICITY” appears.

This is the sort of work one might expect from a young German painter rather too caught up in faux-romanticism, but Gipe lives in California, and this gives his work a number of twists. On the one hand, it helps maintain the sort of self-consciousness that keeps work like this from becoming maudlin and reactionary; Gipe’s nostalgia is almost wholly esthetic, motivated by a fondness for a certain means of representation rather than for the period from which it was lifted. On the other hand, his very distance from a world he never experienced allows him a certain facile attitude toward the very real and very dangerous excesses of industrial capitalism in general and prewar Germany in particular. The work has a tone of cinematic campiness that seems almost too easy. One asks after the purpose of a painting like the aforementioned one that bears the word “COMPLICITY” (officially entitled Panel 2 of the Triptych from the Krupp Project, 1990), and can find no answer other than Gipe’s own flair for nostalgic melodrama.

Romanticism after Modernism is frequently either overly naive or smugly and cynically self-satisfied. Gipe is still a young painter, and one hopes that, as his work progresses, he will find a way to avoid both. If his approach to the history he is trying to recapture is still somewhat unformed, his ironies incomplete, and his mode of expression too easily won, he is nevertheless a skilled parodist and, judging from an artist’s statement included in the show’s press kit, thoughtful about his own work’s impetus. Indeed, all he seems to lack is that small note of doubt that distinguishes mere recollection from deeper memory.

James Lewis