Los Angeles

Patty Wickman

Dan Bernier Gallery

Curious and complex, the three large paintings and additional studies comprising Patty Wickman’s recent show depicted contemporary Americans looking noncommittal, even bored in the face of confrontation. Crime, disease, and violence may be classic and epic themes, inarguably compelling subject matter for a painting, but these participants seemed nonplussed. Oftentimes their faces were hidden, and their bodies appeared simply numb.

In the exhibition’s title painting, A Thief in the Night, a shabbily dressed man is halfway out a window, clutching a computer keyboard and a candelabra. In the room he has just exited stand a man and a woman, their backs toward the viewer, quietly watching the action with resignation from behind a rope and two stanchions. Between them and the thief lies an Oriental rug neatly covered with the kinds of things that might be received as wedding gifts: “precious possessions” such as china, tea sets, a mixer, chafing dishes, silver, and steak knives. The painting commemorates the theft, thus standing as a record of what was lost in conjunction with the story of its removal. It might serve both as an uncomfortable reminder of a burglary and a nostalgic memory of objects.

The narrative is made fuzzy and unclear, however, by the inclusion of several details. A small dog is perched near the side of the painting, staring out at the viewer, the thief has left with only two items, suggesting either incompetence or that he might be back for more, and the setting appears staged, resembling more an artist’s studio (with clip lights and yellow extension cords) than a living room. Even more puzzling is Wickman’s inclusion of a small study for the painting, where the dog gazes imploringly at the man behind the stanchions, who holds his fist resolutely clenched, and the woman puts a hand on his shoulder. The painted version, in which the couple’s hands are neatly folded behind their backs, deleted even this small outburst of emotion.

Violence in another form is rendered, in equally affectless fashion, elsewhere in the show. In Anonymous (With St. Agatha), a nude older woman stands holding a pair of silicone breasts in her hands. Her face, genitals, and breasts have been blocked out in the computerized video style often used for disguising the faces of criminals on television. Behind her loomed Wickman’s rendition of Zurbarán’s Renaissance painting of Saint Agatha, who had her breasts cut off after refusing the advances of the governor of Sicily; in Zurbarán’s version, she holds them on a metal serving dish. The juxtaposition of these two women is striking: the artist comments on the everyday violence of severing the breast; once considered an act of barbarism, it is now common medical practice, undertaken by millions of women, whether to save their lives or to “improve” their quality of lives. Wickman renders the implants as if they were shimmering jewels, giving forth their own light, though the woman who holds them is stripped of individuality and depicted only by her slightly wrinkled body.

Wickman’s style of painting is lush, realistic, and precise, in contrast to her subject matter, which seems eerily almost familiar yet simultaneously fantastic, as well as somewhat ambiguous in meaning. Though the paintings in the show may appear to offer urgent messages about violence in contemporary society, they ultimately prove unable, or even unwilling, to make any definitive statement on the issue. Like the spectator-victims in A Thief in the Night, Wickman seems simply content to idly look out on the scene of the crime.

Lisa Anne Auerbach