Los Angeles

André Ethier

Honor Fraser

Described in the press release accompanying this exhibition as “self-portraits of his own adolescent subconscious,” André Ethier’s new paintings are every inch the exercises in creative onanism that this boldly unfashionable characterization might suggest. Self-consciously brooding and superficially melancholy, each modestly scaled, putridly colored oil-on-Masonite picture in “ACTUALIZED, and it feels so good” convincingly channels the imaginings of a disaffected young man with a spotty understanding of art history and a healthy investment in the lifestyle and aesthetics of psychedelia, metal, indie, garage rock, and a host of genres in between. If paintings such as the Munch-like portrait (all works cited, Untitled, 2010) that depicts a skeleton in an ornate dress with thin strands of fiery hair, a leering grin, and glittering eyes, raising a flower delicately to her “nose,” look as if they could be on the cover of an underground stoner or doom metal album, that quality may be traceable to Ethier’s past as the lead singer and guitarist for the Canadian garage rock band the Deadly Snakes (1996–2006). The consistent coincidence of pop-cult influences in his work raises interrelated questions of style, taste, and decorum not often brought to the fore by commercial-gallery exhibitions, where being on the “right” side of such distinctions is the unspoken prerequisite for representation.

Ethier is not without peers in his insistence on staging a discussion between the legacy of portraiture and still-life painting traditions from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, and the extracanonical, unwritten conventions of folk/outsider/stoner/rocker art. Two figures who spring to mind are Glenn Brown and Kenny Scharf, the latter also part of Honor Fraser’s stable, but few traverse this terrain with Ethier’s brash disinterest in good taste, marketability, and keeping up with trends in contemporary painting. That is to say that each of these pictures courts vulgarity with apparent relish. Everything from the thin, feathery application of paint, to Ethier’s fetid palette, slacker subjects, head-shop illustrational style, and high-varnish finish announces his desire to test the limits and elasticity of his viewers’ taste. For example, one painting depicts a heaving, indistinct mass of red, fleshy material dotted with eyeballs and beer cans. Another shows a princely figure in three-quarter view rendered in shades of green, half his face rotting away; while yet a third offers a gaudy mass of electric blue flowers oozing blood. In each case the subject is squarely and stereotypically countercultural in pitch and the application of paint competent but unremarkable.

None of these strategies inspires close looking, but all of them prompt queries about the critical status of Ethier’s painting within the landscape of contemporary art. Some of the most apposite questions raised by these essentially genreless, loner expositions are also the simplest: How does a gallery like Honor Fraser benefit from showing these paintings? What do the paintings gain from being shown in a highbrow gallery context? What value does the art world reap by considering such works as part of a broader discussion about, for instance, the threshold between materiality and mimetic painting, or the relationship between historical portraiture and outsider genres? Is the viewing anxiety provoked by the tastelessness of Ethier’s paintings in fact their content? Is their wholesale challenge to orthodoxies of subject and style enough to make them critically interesting? If so, are they to be understood as a form of critique? These provocative questions are, however, all extrinsic to Ethier’s paintings, raising the final and most telling question: Are the works themselves worthy of serious consideration?

Christopher Bedford