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February 22, 2013
Art Picks

Irving Marcus

By Victoria Dalkey, Bee Correspondent

"Sit up"

On the surface, the works of Irving Marcus and Peter Stegall would seem to have little in common.

Marcus' dreamlike images at b. sakata garo place distorted figures in complex compositions that suggest emotional states. Stegall's cool geometric abstractions at Bows & Arrows bear no reference to visible reality and seem to be calm and meditative. What the two artists have in common is a feeling for vibrant, radical color – color that becomes a thing in itself.

The imagery in Marcus' work is intriguing. In "Sit Up," an oil pastel on paper, two women face each other. One, a sickly and fragile creature with a pale face, sits up on a bed. The other, dressed as a Japanese geisha, holds up a cat. On the wall between them is a painting or print of what might be Mount Fuji.

It's a suggestive scene, an intimate encounter between two enigmatic figures, perhaps a patient and healer. But it is the color that stages the real drama, the brilliant reds, oranges and yellows of the Japanese woman's kimono, the pale yellow-green of the other woman's skin and the delicate blues and greens of her dress.

Nearby, a large oil painting titled "In Two" gives us another two women – one stretched out on what might be a rooftop or a tatami mat, the other floating away from her in the sky. It might be a scene of the soul leaving the body. The red roof and the blues and blue greens of the figure's clothing make a vibrant contrast, as do the darker pink of the reclining figure's face and the lighter pink of the floating figure's limbs.

In the oil pastel "Incense" we see another female figure, a red-haired woman dressed in tones of mauve and purple, who holds up a glowing taper. She is followed by mysterious figures in varying shades of intense blue. Some kind of ritual seems to be taking place, perhaps a healing one, but again it is the color, so hallucinatory, that draws us into the scene.

While some of the works in the show are reprises from his exhibit at the Blue Line Gallery last fall, these new pieces seem to be of a different order. In contrast to the violent color of "Penthouse" and "Scream," there is a fragility to these that is nonetheless compelling.

Several of the smaller oil pastels exhibit a wacky sense of humor. "King Kong" gives us a small green gorilla confronted by a large pink human, the whole image flaring like flames. "Queen Elizabeth," with her blue face and hair, looks like Chairman Mao. "Vision" is a vibrant scene of samurai warriors in a kabuki dance of bold colors.

Stegall's work at Bows & Arrows consists of one large striped painting and several groupings of smaller rectangular and circular pieces. As they are arranged, they make a strong statement as an installation, the color and shapes setting up a dance of sorts.

of geometric shapes and close-keyed brilliant colors, are eye candy of the highest order. They wake your eyes up with sizzling vibrations and halations. In one work, Stegall places triangular shapes in lavender, gray and green in scintillating relationships that make your eyes literally jump.

On the opposing wall, he places a large, door-size panel of stripes at the center, its tones of pure, intense color – green, blue, navy, and blue-green – jumping out at you. Around this large piece, he has scattered rectangular and circular "objects" in quirky arrangements.

The circular objects, which have three dimensions, are a new wrinkle for Stegall, at least new to me, and they have a quixotic quality that is appealingly wacky. Equally compelling are groupings of small stripe paintings as intense, despite their small size, as anything by Kenneth Noland or the Washington, D.C., stripe painters of the 1960s.

Bows & Arrows is an unusual venue for an art gallery. Divided roughly into three sections, it houses a clothing store and a cafe, which often presents live music. Sandwiched in between are two bare walls for hanging artwork.

Stegall's work is so strong that it holds up to what might otherwise be distracting surroundings.

Irving Marcus

WHEN: Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, through March 2

WHERE: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.


INFORMATION: (916) 447-4276. www.bsakatagaro.com

February, 2013

By David Roth, Square Cylinder

The first impression one forms of Irving Marcus is that he is a fauvist/postimpressionist hailing from some tropical clime. His palette speaks of sweet air and warm light, which is the exact opposite of what his paintings and drawings actually communicate. For the past 35 or so years, Marcus, 84, has painted dark allegories populated by demons, geishas, beasts and innocents interacting uneasily. “Someone once said my work is somewhere between Chagall and Anselm Kiefer, that you’re always being whipped back and forth” between levity and “anguish,” Marcus told me. That sort of viewer response has been more or less consistent since the mid-70s when the artist began painting violent, unsettling events from news photos.

Marcus no longer recreates photos; but he continues to mine news images for abstract shapes, fashioning them into intersecting color fields that function as grounds and multi-planar stages for nebulous (and sometime nefarious) "plots" involving humans and animals set in urban and rural landscapes. He renders them as an outsider artist or a caricaturist would, contorting the bodies into anatomically difficult positions, and situating them in equally improbable physical spaces. Story lines are elusive. But there’s no mistaking the source of these paintings. They come from headlines, personal tragedy, distant memories, and, perhaps, dreams.

The floating, hallucinatory visages we see in his pictures arise organically out of a process that begins with oil pastel drawings on paper which are then replicated in oil on canvas. “I look for photos that have some sort of power as a visual object,” he explains. “Then I look at them in terms of color. I’m looking at the demands of a particular atmosphere that I’m projecting onto a bit of a photo. If the atmosphere of what I’m looking at is dark, then I have to use dark colors,” and out of that process “images start to appear.”

Stylistically, Marcus aligns with a group of narrative/figurative painters who hit their stride in the 1960s and 1979s: the Chicago imagists Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson (who taught briefly with Marcus at Sac State) and the “Bad Painting” group assembled by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney in 1978 — precursors to the neo-expressionists who would later hold sway in New York during the ‘80s. Marcus, who was raised in Minneapolis, likens his thematic approach to Yiddish theater, which transformed the “disastrous conditions” faced by European immigrants into “humor and theatrics that were tragic and funny.”

This exhibition of 21 works, ranging from large-scale oil paintings to small oil pastel drawings, finds Marcus at the height of his powers. The highlights are many.

There’s the interior view of Brothel, a scene of passion and scorn recalled from the artist’s days as a serviceman in Japan; Penthouse, a bird’s eye view of burning city where a luxury tower’s inhabitants seem mysteriously at odds, one terrified, the other nonplussed; and a trio of smaller paintings dedicated to his daughter who recently died, the most memorable being, In Two, which shows a woman precariously splayed on a rooftop and floating lazily in the sky. In 911, George W. Bush appears in a carnivalesque line-up of leering devils before the backdrop of New York under attack. Osama Bin Laden’s face is seen top and center in a small oval.

Satire isn’t Marcus’ only vehicle; nor is autobiographical revelation, even though the apparent surfeit of it is what gives his work real bite. What really facilitates it is the artist’s virtuoso paint handling – visible in the textures he achieves through erasure, daubing, crosshatching and juxtapositions of distant and close-value colors that define (and confuse) pictorial space. Hidden Hiding, where the bodies of two lovers seamlessly intertwine, is a particularly strong example. So is Hen Courage, where colliding geometric shapes create the illusion of a girl on a pedestal surrounded by skyscrapers. In typical Marcus fashion, the girl’s beatific grin is belied by a threatening flock of birds a la Hitchcock. If you sense in these descriptions the presence of opposing forces, you've pegged Marcus correctly. At the center of his oeuvre is an ongoing tug-o-war between color and content and between quasi-narrative elements whose meanings resist apprehension. It’s his signature. As the artist so aptly puts it: “There’s a lot of contradictions.”