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Kali and Macaroons

by Michael Helsem

A pleasant visit to Angstrom Gallery, whose unobligingly closed Sunday hours have forestalled your peripatetic critic for too long. In the outer room, a painter with a strange agenda ( — always a plus with me), Ann Craven seems to feel no picture is complete without a giant bird, a cherry, and blurry flowers in the back. Yet these non-iconic icons aren't as particularized as someone with a genuine bird-fetish would insist on. A little longer pondering their blatant, indigestible color schemes, and the puzzle is solved.

Botero babies in psychedelic colors

Botero Babies in psychedelic colors

Have you ever seen those modern, ultrasaccharine, post-propaganda Chinese postcards that sometimes turn up at the more adventurous international kitsch outlets? That poster style gradually morphed from its Sixties incarnation of Botero-meets-Dali, into something altogether more menacing and self-referential by the Seventies and Eighties, when acid colors and improbable compositions defy you not to giggle, and also wonder just how they were perceived (if at all) in the home market.

I’ve admired them, but they seemed not to admit of any artistic use; copying one would be as pointless as the A-Teens’ note-perfect ABBA covers. Well, Craven has apparently made a set of these the subject of her painting. And just like the ones that have that weird, laminated, quasidimensional background, you can’t quite focus on anything but the chief characters. Okay, i get it. Now what?

One could find an irony of sorts between the painterly brushwork and the candy colors, hues rare in serious painting after Boucher laid down his brush; or meditate on this debacle of an artistic tradition that once reached the heights of the Sung masters (and what does it portend for us, if anything?).


Ann Craven - image from invitation postcard

Ann Craven - image from postcard invitation

But all that seems beside the point. In my favorite one, "Stem," a series of four pictures (in pink, red, and a little ochre) interchangeable except for the bird who clytes in the second one, the element of time — so assiduously denied in propaganda — is hinted at here, with a flavoring of macaroons.

Further on, your attention is grabbed by a mirror ball in the shape of a skull, perfect in execution and outrageous in concept, slowly turning as if not to miss anyone. It’s "Disco Inferno" by Christoph Steinmeyer who also turns out, amazingly, to be responsible for the three best paintings (more, anon).

Sort of in that vein as well is Virgil Marti’s "Sconce," all silver and lights and mirrors, that after awhile you realize depict realistic cacti, inserted in the bowl of a tortoise shell. Keith Mayerson, in "The Seer," amusingly portrays Rimbaud (in lime and turquoise) as Van Gogh might have done him on an off night (very). "Hard, gem-like flame" indeed...

Steinmeyer in all three of his, but especially "Klotho, Lachesis & Atropos" (the Greek names of the three Fates), reveals himself as the only disciple of Paschke ( — and in some respects surpasses him), with brilliant portraiture in unsettling colors, a touch of Vogue too but a psychological intensity that completely eclipses even the gaudy sculptures in the same space.

Another of the paintings takes its title from a Poe story, and Poe indeed might have painted it (or maybe the M. P. Shiel of "Xelucha") — if he had the courage. Exquisite and harrowing, timeless and rapt, they bespeak an engagement deeper than the moment’s trends and troubles. The Goddess of these paintings is Kali, without a doubt; in their presence you start to believe.

There’s hope for the art after all.


Index of stories by Michael Helsem

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