Robert Davis + Michael Langlois

Nothing is more contemporary than retro, the self-aware salvaging of a recent past that is the subject of nostalgia while many of its qualities and questions remain current. The collaborative duo of Chicago artists Robert Davis + Michael Langlois have their version of late 1960s psychedelia so down pat that their exhibition “Looking into the Rays” provided that giddy Austin Powers–like subsumption into a charmed past, though here with some intimations of dissonance and dread. For Davis + Langlois, the late ’60s are every bit as much Altamont as Woodstock.

The exhibition took its name from a screen print the artists made in 2006 for an exhibition in Germany in collaboration with Rashid Johnson (as guest artist, he showed a single work in this exhibition as well). In it there’s a roundel fish-eye photograph of the three artists resurrecting the poses from a famous poster of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with the Caucasians Davis and Langlois reprising the roles of band members Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, flanking Johnson as Hendrix. The image is surrounded by its vaguely spiritual title, Look into the Rays of the New Solar Sun Rising, and some attendant information rendered in highly stylized bulbous text, very ’60s in its insouciance. The tongue-in-cheek amiability of this image recurs in Peace and Love, 2006, a vortex design based on a tie-dye pattern. It’s a hypnotic image, sort of Magic Eye avant la lettre.

The darker underbelly of all this, the sense that sometimes there’s some PCP in the LSD, came through in both La Petite Morte and History of the World, both works 2006. The former is a figurative sculpture with a floor-painting component; the figure is a small bronze of a desiccated, skeletal specter holding a scythe in one hand and his penis in the other. La petite mort is a euphemism for orgasm, and the buckled-kneed skeleton has indeed exuded some metaphoric effluvium from his penis that causes the entire floor of the gallery to be painted in concentric circles of bright color. It’s all Manneken Pis becoming Manneken Death, an eerie undercutting of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The latter is a complex spiritual and political cosmology, as if Iron Butterfly were to clothe one of their albums in a contemporary mandala. At its center is a kind of leonine grottesche, whose mouth opens to reveal the swirling forces of the universe. Radiating around it in this grisaille painting are images of a monkey, a skull, an insect, a pennant, a nude woman, symbols of the US and Hamas, a Buddha, a snake, a starving child, and a spaceship, all linked in a symmetrical matrix apparently representing an arcane fantasy of sex, power, death, and nature that we cannot fully decode but which somehow reads nonetheless as completely serious and logical. While retro here (as always) is at least partially involved in amiable spoofing, Davis + Langlois also insist on the past’s continued pertinence.

James Yood