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Shifts in Time 

Artists have always done funny things with time. Renaissance art often celebrated figures from the Bible, ancient history or mythology. Some 19th century artists celebrated the Renaissance, and contemporary artists borrow freely from all of the above. Yet cerebral postmodern art often tends to be rather dry, shunning references to the romanticism of the past, which may help explain why Michael Northuis, whose paintings appear at Heriard-Cimino, seems to defy most attempts at classification.

Reflecting aspects of the present, as well as of the past and the future, his youthful subjects suggest figures from a science fiction subculture, like Nordic goth kids transported to some Blade Runner-esque landscape of tomorrow. Which could be tacky, but Northuis' oddly Northern renaissance overtones lend his surreal subjects something of the crystalline lucidity that we associate with van Eyck, or even Bosch, who was no slouch in the surreal weirdness department himself. (Art buffs may also detect overtones of Odd Nerdrum, the contemporary Norwegian sci-fi-neo-renaissance painter.)

Blue Jay Way is a head-and-shoulders view of a guy with a face right out of an old Ingmar Bergman movie, but his vaguely medieval hat is adorned with a syringe. His forehead is embellished with diamond-shaped scarification in which a clear green gem glistens. A pear levitates in the background as a big fat joint hovers over his head like a thought bubble, which makes no logical sense, but forms a visually harmonic whole at some other level of awareness. The same might be said of Annunciation, in which a sci-fi biker angel clutches a cryptic scroll as an equally otherworldly maiden pours him a glass of wine. A pair of lemons in a candy dish and a leering pictographic head glaring up from below round out a scene that is visually resolved yet nihilistic, defying most logical expectations.

His other images can be as diverse as they are zany. Woman With Hat, a head-and-shoulders study of a young nude wearing a minimal hat, looks almost straight-up Northern renaissance at first, at least until we notice her contemporary facial features. And Woman With Tulip and Egg -- a woman clutching a tulip as an egg dangles mysteriously over her head -- melds classical simplicity with dreamy surreality in a near-iconic image. If none of this fits postmodernism very well, it does recall the work of the late 19th century symbolists and other offshoots of romanticism's dark side that eventually evolved into dadaism and surrealism, traces of which are still evident in today's goth subculture. Northuis is a master of his own unique idiom.

Equally surprising shifts in time and style occur in Matteo Neivert's The Gods Must Be Crazy show at Mario Villa. Also a painter of mysterious narratives, Neivert puts his own spin on myths and legends in works like Black Ophelia for Baby Josephine. Here Neivert used pre-Raphaelite avatar John Everett Millais' Ophelia as a starting point, substituting local bayou flora, looser brushwork and, most significantly, a Creole of color for his subject. The result is a much jazzier Ophelia that still evokes the elegantly morbid beauty of the original. Another fanciful landscape features a maiden in a medieval gown and a knight in shining armor on a white stallion. The knight charges a ferocious dragon that only he can see -- in the picture it's only empty space -- which makes for a literally quixotic sensibility.

Other myths are of more recent origin. Going Bananas: The Liberation of Chiquita Banana is a collage painting featuring a fire-breathing Chiquita Banana who looks suspiciously like Carmen Miranda in a red ruffled skirt and black boots. She stands on a slippery slope of bananas surrounded by a jungle peopled with peasants and rifle-toting rebels as, floating in the sky above, a corporate board room hovers like a metaphysical omen. All of which recalls the saga of United Fruit, the formerly New Orleans-based corporation that once lorded over the affairs of several Central American nations. Neivert's playful approach to mythology touches on familiar legends in ways that emphasize irony and surreality. In this, he too harks to the symbolists and dark romantics of yore, painters who set the stage for dadaism and surrealism and whose legacy still abounds in today's alternative subcultures.

click to enlarge Michael Northuis' Annunciation, like much of his work, defies most logical expectations but works on some other level of awareness.
  • Michael Northuis' Annunciation, like much of his work, defies most logical expectations but works on some other level of awareness.
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