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Passive and Active 

"I am a rock, I am an Island." -- Paul Simon

The existential angst of Simon and Garfunkel was a response to the times, but has anything really changed? Maybe not. The other day I perused Half.com in search of more memory for my digicam, and a blurb on the site said, "People who bought this item also bought Sex and the City," which is actually a book. I saw no connection, so I looked on Amazon.com for a summary, and the sample pages were intriguing -- it was all about people trying to connect in a city, New York, where behavior is so calculated and self-absorbed that sex is a tactic and emotional vulnerability is a no-fly zone, or so said the author, Candace Bushnell.

I never found any connection to memory modules, but it made me think of that old Paul Simon song. And also of Brian Novatny, a painter of figures that seem tranced out, lost in their own inner spaces. Novatny lives in New York, but his work presumably has to do with the human condition. He has said that "generally, my figures don't interact, they don't acknowledge each other. I want to avoid sentiment, the literal depiction of emotion between people." He has nothing to fear -- his subjects are deadpan to the max. Yet, emotion is not wholly absent. What comes across is that sense of isolation that is notoriously a product of industrial societies and that eastern European authors have elevated to an art form in their novels. In that sense, Novatny harks to Kafka, but also to Milan Kundera and Mikhail Bulgakov.

Man Standing on a Chair depicts a well-dressed man in a business suit standing in a wooden kitchen chair. He extends his hand almost as if to shake on a business deal, but the spaces around him are empty except for the polka dot pattern of the floor tiles. He has the expressionless face of a bureaucrat and his body is blocky if well tailored, as generic as the polka dots. Woman in Front of a Man has implications of drama yet is no less deadpan, as an attentive if stoic gent is partly obscured by an expressionless woman in a floral print dress. Her body language is somnambulistic, in motion yet static. Clad in her bold floral fabric, she resembles a dress pattern.

What are these people up to? Not much. Like case studies in modern anomie, they are lost in their own zone. In contrast, Woman Sitting on a Red Stool is a simmering cauldron of emotion, at least by Novatny standards. Her gestures are as wooden as the rest, but the tone is a little different. Her facial features are more focused and communicative, wearing the look that some women get when they want to talk about "us." Or something that happened at the office. Some have noted Novatny's Renaissance flourishes, but to me his stuff recalls an inversion of Soviet Realism: instead of heroic and active figures, his are anti-heroic and passive. The spaces around them are minimal and the patterning is whimsical. In Novatny's work, alienation is a platform for whimsy and a lyrical sort of virtuosity.

Michael Willmon's figures are much more overt, perhaps because his themes are so apocalyptic, or maybe because his figures are mostly dead and have nothing to lose. His crimson-tinged renditions of dinosaurs and meteorites wreaking havoc on Jackson Square and Canal Street continue his traditional themes, but this time around he has expanded his oeuvre to include New York as well, perhaps in commemoration of 9/11. His New York Disaster Scene depicts a dense Manhattan skyline with flaming meteors crashing on his meticulously painted skyscrapers, the whole scene suffuse with an infernal glow, all of which is rather eerie as we approach September.

Willmon's trademark local graveyard scenes with skeletons partying in cemeteries are also in evidence. Departures include Judgement Day, with angels hovering over crumbling crypts blowing trumpets as souls ascend heavenward while sinners burn in hellfire. In another painting, the cemeteries become Hades as demons boil their victims in sugar cane vats or chase them around the crypts with whips. As in Hieronymous Bosch, the results are chillingly intriguing, but here the tone is almost buoyant. Like the locals, those demons seem dead set on having a good time.

click to enlarge The sense of isolation that marks much of Brian Novatny's work is evident in Woman in Front of a Man, with both figures conveying only a hint of drama through their deadpan expressions.
  • The sense of isolation that marks much of Brian Novatny's work is evident in Woman in Front of a Man, with both figures conveying only a hint of drama through their deadpan expressions.
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