One of the most important talents a curator can possess is corraling artists in one place and making it seem as if their works belong together. Sue Greenwood has done just that, bringing a trio of Los Angeles painters—William Wray, Scott Yeskel and Danny McCaw—into her Laguna Beach gallery, with the resulting exhibition, “LA ATTITUDE,” feeling as if three very different parts were joined to make an invigorating, cohesive whole.
Wray’s desolate no-man’s land of ecstatically painted necropoli are packed with palpable emotion, his love-hate battle with urban architecture evolving since last year into an even more sophisticated abstraction. Ominous blocks of color still stand in for skyscrapers, the thinnest of thin orange lines separating them, but the backgrounds are now more furious and explosive. In Away, a gray-and-white dirigible hovers in the corner, a smashed bug on a windshield; trying to escape the oppressive city filling the remainder of the canvas, it’s frozen, locked in the toxic pink-and-yellow miasma of the sky.
The Black Tower pierces its purple firmament, almost scraping the top of the painting, as darkness drops a velvet shroud over a sunset resembling a burning, sparking bonfire. It’s a riveting picture, the vague echoes of disaster bringing a downhearted elegance to the proceeding, amid the artist’s apparent glee that it just can’t happen fast enough. In contrast, the serene Pink Rocket departs from the prevalent cityscapes to what I can only imagine is rural. I think I see a barn, bleached by the sun; a light-blue silo that may have once been green sits near the dull metal roof of another unspecified building. As the titular rocket shape (resembling to my eyes the mushroom cap of a tractor’s exhaust) points to the sky, it’s almost hidden by a sweeping yellow blanket of grain covering the remaining three-quarters of the canvas, the stalks rustled by an invisible breeze created by swathes of dappled pale paint.
Yeskel’s focus is also on buildings instead of people, save one painting, Valley Taco Truck, in which a sole figure stands in front of an empty order window, lost in an existential dinner crisis. Dimly lit by the ancient parking-lot lighting overhead, the menu is blurred, the only items you can make out suggestions of combo plates. Orange traffic cones and two flimsy fold-out chairs only accentuate the loneliness. While Yeskel’s moody work resembles Edward Hopper only in the formality of his clipped surroundings, there are echoes of the painter’s solitude and obsession with place.
In W. Hollywood Hotel, the Standard’s hipster façade and empty balconies are lit forlornly by blue bulbs, the street-level restaurant becoming an empty, caffeinated red-light district haunted by a couple of palm trees and a single newspaper vending box; the light sculpture on the roof has been repainted into a streetlamp hovering like the moon overhead. The remaining paintings are snapshots of desert living: homes, empty swimming pools and parked automobiles, all emphasizing the trappings and containers of a monied class that has mysteriously gone missing.
The sun pounds the faces of Patio Chairs #2, their long Giacometti shadows stretched out behind them. Despite the light, the picture isn’t warm or inviting, the two thrones stark and chilly with their owners’ absence. Absent landlords off to better paradises, scenes post-revolution, or a vision of Shelley’s Ozymandias?
McCaw’s canvases, on the other hand, have the energy and life the other artists shrug off. They are packed with human beings in close proximity to one another. Still, as with his fellow painters, McCaw’s groupings elicit few feelings of warmth. Instead, there’s a suffocating uneasiness, no matter how many or how few are pictured, with some of the figures so close that the brushstrokes that delineate them also bind them. Blurring and eviscerating their boundaries, we’re rarely looking at individuals, but rather clots of faceless human silhouettes.
In Through the Window, a woman holding a child is seen from the back, standing in front of a plate-glass window and staring at industrial blue and gray business buildings on the horizon. Verdant representations of trees partially block her view, as if denying her access, that separation enhanced by the oranges and blacks suggesting a statue in the process of oxidation. As a modern version of Lot’s wife, the grimy interior in which she is standing—carpet the color of dried blood and a rusty grunge-brown paint on the walls—makes her look as if she’s in prison. For McCaw, disconnection begins young in Pedal Boat. Making the most out of being alone, his subject stretches out his short legs to reach the pedals, a circle of blue drawing our eye to the lines of his features and the crimson of his life vest, bisecting the white stern. In stasis, even if he can get the boat moving, he’s likely only going to go in circles.
“LA ATTITUDE” at Sue Greenwood Fine Art, 330 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; www.suegreenwoodfineart.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Sun. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.