Los Angeles

Steve Hurd

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

In his first solo exhibition in seven years and his debut at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Steve Hurd showed eighteen paintings spanning three years of work. Most familiar were those based on advertising circulars for art supply and frame stores, which faithfully reproduce layouts, wording, and images ranging from the generic prints included in new picture frames to Amedeo Modigliani reproductions. Rendered in a loosely naturalistic style with thin, drippy oil paint, these are reminiscent of Hurd’s previous riffs on the art world, which have included hand-painted reproductions of art magazine covers and reviews of his shows as they appeared in print except stained and littered with malt liquor empties.

Also taking up the theme of art-world machinations and values is Oslo 8–22–04, 2006, a painting based on a still from the security-camera video of the 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893, from an Oslo museum. Elsewhere, Hurd strays from art-world critique—for example, Should Never Be Exhibited, 2006, in which he reproduces the text of a reprimand from an employer. Should Never Be Exhibited’s combination of words and painting style here generates an intelligent meditation on the idea of a painting as a container of emotion, as personal in its own way as are Hurd’s review paintings.

The most arresting paintings in this extraordinarily eclectic show represented a grab bag of Hurd’s recent preoccupations, which seem to be largely political. Two are close-up, soft-focus views of a man’s smiling mouth rendered in peach and pink swaths that suggest warmth, but infused with trickles of green and gray that hint at something rotten, and painted with drips evocative of seething drool. Though neither the paintings nor their titles directly indicate that they depict George W. Bush (one seems closer to Donald Rumsfeld), the smug, duplicitous smiles seem awfully familiar. They are, like the Munch’s broad-daylight abduction, wake-up calls after the fact, images of an evil only ever identified after it has taken place.

Hurd’s talent is his ability to use paint in a highly varied manner that nevertheless stays within certain parameters, to coax from images their full implications. This is particularly evident in a group of paintings based on digitized pictures of soldiers carrying flag-draped caskets. Strictly gridded and colorfully painted, as if Piet Mondrian had been given the task of digitally obscuring media images that might be too shocking or sensitive, these canvases, which blend stars and stripes, camouflage, and the repetitious forms of pallbearers into rhythmic quasi-abstractions, seem to illustrate the line “You can’t handle the truth.”

Perhaps less intense, though no less astute, are two paintings dominated by sunlit trees in fields. Upon closer inspection, they turn out to be graveyards, and their light shifts from the pastoral toward the apocalyptic. Equally affecting are works from Hurd’s “Outburst” series (2004–2006), in which random scribbles by the artist are pixilated—their loops, spikes, and hairpin turns pitted against the regularity of the grid—then greatly enlarged and painted in choppy strokes. Knowing that Hurd made the initial scribbles while in an “agitated” condition regarding our current state of affairs is not a prerequisite for appreciating the work. These richly satisfying works are like polygraphs that reveal Hurd’s state of mind, as well as reminders, in their jittery, blunted freneticism, that abstraction can still be richly telling.

Christopher Miles