Echoing and altering the landscape
Painter Shay Kun’s conceit is simple. His exhibition at LaMontagne Gallery features exquisitely painted landscapes that echo those of 19th-century American masters such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt. Into these he drops odd characters who enact perplexing narratives, disrupting these odes to nature’s majesty with bizarre and often violent human agency.
Sometimes the incursion is small, as in “If You Don’t Have a Strategy, You’re Part of Someone Else’s Strategy,’’ which lulls the viewer with rolling hills, a meandering brook, and the operatic play of dark clouds and sunlight in the sky. In the middle ground, a wreath hangs from a branch, ablaze with flame. Two men have propped a ladder against the tree’s trunk. Kun’s narrative is deliberately oblique. Is this a ritual? Some kind of effigy? It’s not clear. What is clear is that human presence besmirches the peaceful landscape.
Kun is wonderfully skilled with a brush. He evokes leaves, lichen, and reflections with daunting precision, weaving a spell. “Final Frontier,’’ a lovely, autumnal lakefront landscape, is eerily symmetrical, with mirror images split by a maypole in the center. Orange, yellow, and red banners swoop toward us through the sky, and auburn trees lean in from the edges. In the bottom corners, commandos in body armor aim machine guns over the placid lake.
In their time, Hudson River School landscapes, and Western scenes like Bierstadt’s, lauded the beauty and potential of their subjects. God’s presence was implied in a shaft of light. From a 21st-century vantage point, Kun’s reprises are elegiac, praise songs to a utopia that never came to be, and illustrations of how humanity’s hand has corrupted nature’s possibility. It’s not a new theme, but Kun pulls it off with both horror and humor.
His black-and-white images are mostly grainy. The portrait “Jackie Beat, California Institute of Abnormalarts, (CIA), Los Angeles, CA,’’ sports a shallow focus, blurring certain features and heightening the sense of theatrical surrealism. Jackie Beat’s nose nearly disappears, but her extraordinary eyelashes drop vividly, like dark waterfalls. Her artfully composed makeup includes swooping eyebrows and lips painted in a metallic sheen. She wears a skullcap with horizontal stripes.
One wall features confrontational close-ups: a single eye, a mouth, breasts. The mouth in “Amber Ray, Los Angeles, CA’’ is a mix of repulsive and glamorous. Under a notably hairy upper lip, teeth glistening with saliva bite the glittering bottom lip. It’s a fierce image. Horenstein has always had a discerning eye for form, foiling expectations and finding unusual beauty in his subjects. The burlesque performers exaggerate form with their over-the-top style, and Horenstein goes along with that, but he doesn’t let it distract or seduce him. He’s more interested in what he sees than in what he is being shown, and that’s what makes him so good.
Akiyama’s figures, carved from basswood and painted, have always appeared inward looking. We know they have a story to tell, but we can’t know what it is.
The characters here share that trait. In several carved reliefs, however, Akiyama begins to let us in on the internal drama. In “Between Dream and Memory II,’’ a woman stands amid wading birds; they look like storks. In “Encounter,’’ a woman lies asleep on her side as two bears nuzzle her. One large untitled sculpture features a sleeping woman with a sparrow in her hand. These hints at narrative shift the works from portraiture to allegory, which makes them a trifle coy, as if she’s offering clues that she herself doesn’t know the meaning of.
Grimes covers her remarkable paintings with a crackling latticework that looks half-calligraphic, half-crystalline, like ice on the verge of cracking open beneath your feet. Every one of these gestures is pale, outlined in gray, so it has light, shadow, and dimension. On first glance, I assumed she had scored the surface, but no; she evokes these narrow gullies with paint. In one untitled canvas, the background moves from slate gray at the top to dove gray at the bottom. The network’s light lines pop at the top; the dark ones stand out below. These are probing, quiet, deeply detailed paintings.