Michael Tole

Michael Tole’s recent show in Dallas, “Some Queer Noisy Pendulum,” was well timed, opening just a few days after the announcement that he had won the fifty-thousand-dollar Hunting Prize for painting. Tole’s work celebrates everyday visual pleasures; his most recent paintings are based on snapshots of ersatz Fabergé eggs on sale at a gift shop in the Dallas Galleria. An earlier series did the same for gewgaws he photographed in a Cracker Barrel restaurant–cum–gift shop, and he is currently at work on paintings depicting fragmented views from a wax museum.

Tole’s imagery, clearly derived from photographic sources, bears the qualities of a captured instant. The blurred imagery of Untitled (chariot with silver and purple), 2007, and Untitled (Faberge vertical), 2006, for example, registers the exposure’s duration in visible streaks and smears. These qualities combine with eccentric cropping and depth of field to signify the vital mediation of a camera in the painter’s process. The mechanical qualities of the photographic image do not, however, prevent Tole from elaborating his surfaces with countless elegant, feathery marks and gentle gradations of tone and color. These paintings could only be oils. The results—wispy and delicate—are closer to Rococo than to anything by a first-generation Photorealist.

Tole’s cropping frequently leads to a compressed pictorial space and a cluttered picture plane (here crammed with swelling ovoid forms). Even the negative spaces contain a plenum of color and form, an overabundance that suggests a jaded attitude toward the subject. The “too much” of the paintings corresponds to a curious by-product of a bloated consumer culture: the gift shop and the idea of a gift as a merchandizing category. The Fabergé eggs are expensive tchotchkes, something a harried corporate VP might buy for his wife at holiday time. These are gifts whose appearance embodies their expense (they are, like paintings, all appearance).

Given Tole’s previous exploration of the souvenir taste of Cracker Barrel, his new canvases readily suggest an aesthetic and cultural critique. Yet he withholds judgment. The paintings’ voluptuous beauty indicates something more than snarky criticality. Deconstructions of bad design and the signifiers of class are one thing, but the artist’s manifest joy in rendering visual richness (especially when it’s cheap) are more the point here. Even apparently limited subjects present ample opportunity for his eye, and ours, to linger and find pleasure.

Michael Odom