Art  Zoller  Wagner
Realist Painting: Cleveland Free Times Review


Alive and Painting

by Dan Tranberg
Cleveland Free Times (Ohio)
1-7 September 1999, p. 68

In the early 1980s, electronic media fiend Laurie Anderson said she couldn't imagine why anyone in this day and age would make paintings when so many other technologies were available. A few years later she recalled the comment and laughed; no medium enjoyed more popularity in the '80s than painting. Still, painting is like the prom queen that classmates love to hate. Success, after all, is the death of rebellion. And what is art without a little subversive punch? What drives us forward if not the persistent desire to improve on the past?

Belly Tales VII, shown in the 'Painting at the End of the 20th Century' exhibition

Belly Tales VI
Art Zoller Wagner
One of the Belly Tales paintings in the exhibition

In 1999, painting is as alive as ever. Why? A group show at Lake Erie College's B.K. Smith Gallery offers a wealth of answers. Nine Lives: Painting at the End of the 20th Century accomplishes what the recent exhibition at the Akron Art Museum (Art at the End of the Millennium) failed to express by favoring celebrity artists over a diversity of approaches to art making. Painting is alive because artists continue to use it to express new ideas.

Consider the work of William Radawec, whose paintings mimic sections of damaged walls. Using housepaint, correction ink and pencil on paper, Radawec creates perplexing works he identifies as "artifacts from the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles." Without close examination, the paintings look like rectangular portions of interior walls that were literally cut out and framed. But Radawec has made them like super-realistic sculptures, rendering each crack and chip. Their flatness, one of the traditionally definitive characteristics of a painting, exists as a challenge to the medium itself. The extremely shallow depth of the paintings is identical to that of the subject they depict.

Another artist who takes a sculptural approach to painting is Ben Parsons, whose large mixed-media canvases combine actual and implied depth. By layering flat areas of paint and then scraping them, Parsons creates a "planar matrix" that calls into question the very nature of spatial perception. A dreamlike collage of primitive, abstract shapes floats across each canvas. But the uncertainty of the space containing these objects forces the viewer to consider the relationship between optical tricks and reality--an issue fundamental to all two-dimensional art. The potency of the paintings lies in Parson's seemingly innate sensitivity to the subtleties of spatial relationships. Unlike many painters, whose work connects you to an idea then drops you off to think about it, Parson's meditative canvases demand to be stared at and thought about endlessly.

Figurative work, of the more or less traditional variety, is strongly represented in the show and is the area of greatest uncertainty. Virginia Dixon's clumsily rendered depictions of women are a poor representation of narrative painting that explores personal struggles on the road to self-actualization. Better are Sarah Curry's attempts at "reinventing a modern interpretation of the goddess archetype." Her well-done but simplistic Innocent Beauty shows a full-lipped woman with flowing, golden hair, blindfolded by a piece of red cloth. Her larger canvas, Lucy and her Girls, depicts a group of stern-looking women seemingly copied from an old photograph. While Curry's technique is unrefined, her basic approach to painting is representative of a larger and more important idea of using representational images to question stereotypes and redefine gender roles.

The Belly Tales Installation of paintings exhibited in the Lake Erie College show.

Belly Tales Installation
Art Zoller Wagner
The installation of figurative paintings described in this review

The strongest of the figurative painters is Art Zoller Wagner. His "belly paintings" are a series of horizontal canvases addressing the "taboo of nakedness." In a style reminiscent of British painter Lucien Freud, Wagner focuses on the midsections of his models, all of whom appear to be middle-aged and overweight. The monochromatic paintings show the figures in the center of each canvas surrounded by stringed balloons either inflated or completely deflated. The juxtaposition has more than one implication. But most apparent in Wagner's work is a very real sense of discovery--a feeling that through the act of painting these models, the artist made realizations about our visceral nature and somehow came to terms with it.

If one piece in the show embodies the undying spirit of painting it is The Prodigal Daughter Returns by Diane Savino. Done in the form of a Byzantine altarpiece, the egg-tempera painting draws visual and spiritual parallels between a woman's twisted blond hair, fruit bearing branches and a humble whiskbroom. Unconcerned with changing technologies or gender stereotypes, the piece seems to celebrate timelessness. Like painting itself, it quietly persists amid all the chatter.

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