"Deep State," 2015, oil on canvas on panel, 84 x 72

“Deep State,” 2015, oil on canvas on panel, 84 x 72

Apocalyptic, trash-laden, desperate landscapes make up “Deep State,” a solo exhibition of new paintings and prints by Scott Greene. These narrative works — one can’t help but immediately begin to create the backstory that renders the worlds we’re looking at — are somewhat loosely painted, which adds to the sense of things falling apart, being oh so tentatively, just barely, held together.

The large, horizontal (144 x 48 inches) Trading Post features a cell tower camouflaged like a tall pine tree that’s leaned over (thus the horizontality of the work, which adds to its off-kilter feeling) and filled with supplies such as gas cans and animal pelts. A man toward the top of the “tree” is stashing wood and a lamb is falling to the ground. The rest of the landscape appears chaotic, disheveled.

Providing an element of comic relief to the serious subject of our compromised environment, which is the central focus of the show, is Cavalier, which depicted a Napoleon-like figure raising an arm up and forward, a sign that says, “Let us go forth and conquer!” He is astride a sheep, rather than a horse, and our Napoleon has a smiley-face plastic grocery bag stuck to his head, covering part of his face, and a large brown blanket covering his blue and gold uniform, which peaks out beneath. The sheep rears up, a surprised look on its bridled face, on a trash-strewn cliff overlooking the landscape below.

These works exemplify the feel of the show: the “advanced” world (wo)man has created or is attempting to create via technology or bravado and ambition comes with a cost. The natural world, which feeds us and makes our lives healthy and abundant, will ultimately deliver us back to times of primitive hunting and gathering and extreme filth, times we’re worked long and hard to advance from. Green environmentalist nightmare is that the world we take for granted will revert as a result of humanity’s hubris. These works depict an unpleasant yet possible future; they’re beautiful to the eye even, as a political statement, they mean to help sound a serious warning.

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Julie Heffernan, "Picking up the Pieces," oil on canvas, 72 x 54 inches, 2010, courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery

Full disclosure: I knew this show would be good before I viewed it. Not to say I didn’t give it a critical look-over, but rather, given Julie Heffernan’s track record, some preliminary jpgs, and reception of work from the same series that showed last year  in New York (at PPOW; the current show, on view through October 29, 2011, includes newer works), it was clear to me that this Brooklyn-based painter had another hit on her hands.

Heffernan’s work here, as in the past, is richly detailed and brilliantly colored—a riot of reds, oranges, yellows, and greens pervade. They reflect the artist’s lyrical talent with the medium along with her beautiful imagination. Heffernan is able to deftly relay unique, fairy tale–like visions of her world. These works are autobiographical and strongly rooted in art history. The visually luscious Old Master style riffs off traditional still live symbolism—a pile of dead birds sit upon a central female figure’s lap in “Self-Portrait with Talking Stones” (2011) for example. These symbols of abundance, feast and nourishment are presented and brought into the present with a good dose of surrealist dreaminess. Variously, rocks float in the air; a figure wears a headdress of fruit; the ground is folded up like a bundle of cloth.

Akin to Heffernan’s earlier work, these paintings feature a singular, centrally placed figure. But whereas before the figure was always female (and a self-portrait), several of these new works feature a young man who, it turns out, is her son. The back-story: Heffernan’s son is leaving for college. In one painting, “Picking Up the Pieces” (2010), this central figure has on his back a huge bundle collected into a rope net; around his waist is a tool belt stuffed full. The symbolism is clear—he leaves with baggage but also the tools to deal with the challenges ahead (off to the side there is also a rock and next to it a sign that reads “Hard Place”). In another work, “Self-Portrait with Falling Sky” (2011), Heffernan contemplates her new state of uncertainty: rocks hover and float around the central female figure, none of them, however, touching her. Her world is up in the air, but there is the sense that it’ll all work out right.

Heffernan’s works not only feature the overarching symbols, surroundings, and objects that speak to the storyline the main character is engaged in, but also comprise numerous vignettes that may or may not seamlessly gel with the larger narrative. They’re tangential offshoots or breaks that keep us on our toes—and sometimes they are so well integrated in the visual abundance of the work, they may not get noticed until a second, third, or fourth look. Many of these scenes or images are inspired by NPR, which Heffernan listens to almost constantly, providing a topical twist to the work, which, because the origin is a mass-media source, might well resonate with that audience.

All but one (a limited edition print) among the thirteen works are oil on canvas, and mostly large in size. As a group they embody a visually complex and stunningly rendered timeless tale of the human condition that continues to reveal fresh details over time.

"The Crooked Timber" by Chester Arnold

Chester Arnold’s paintings and drawings (here, studies of the larger oils on linen) are alive. Cliffs, fallen trees, piles of branches, and tree stumps pulse with personality, in this new body of works that are almost devoid of people. As he has in the past, Arnold based this series on a central theme, one of the artist’s favorite quotes, which was penned by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight is ever made.”

In this exhibition, titled “The Crooked Timber and other paintings and drawings” and on view through July 3, Arnold continues to explore the intersection of man in nature in highly detailed and expertly stylized nature scenes. The wind’s chaos kicks up papers, deterioration, detritus, cut-down trees. In several works, the Sonoma-based artist also keeps the slightly elevated perspective found in previous paintings; the viewer surveys the scene from above. But these studies of decay, based as they are on such a doom-and-gloom declaration, do not depress. In these often large scale landscapes (several measure as large as 78 by 96 inches) are touches of humor; Arnold’s jaunty, fluid Van Gogh-like strokes result in an animated playfulness. There’s also an earthy, romantic appeal of times past–the allure of an abandoned old barn or rickety rope-and-wood-plank bridge. One comes away with a sense of optimism or hope: there’s a beauty and substance of character to be found among the gnarled wreckage.
This recommendation originally appeared on Visual Art Source.