"Tightrope TRAINing," 2015, acrylic on panel, 21 x 25”

“Tightrope TRAINing,” 2015, acrylic on panel, 21 x 25”

Paying homage to famous artists (both past and present); featuring humor and a magical dream-like quality; displaying exquisite detail, the new works by Spainish-based artist Pablo D’Antoni are absolutely delightful. Scale and shape play a key role in this new body of work: pieces range from half-inch round nail-heads to 3” x 24” horizontal panels and 2” x 48” “matchstick” panels, to more conventional mid-sized rectangular works (36” x 47”, 20” x 40”, etc.). This play with proportion contributes to how the works are read, as well as giving an almost fun-house feel to the show. The nail-head works—magnifying glasses are supplied in order to better see them—are homages to J.M.W. Turner, each one a miniature remaking of a landscape (and one self-portrait) by the painter. In addition to being a painter, D’Antoni is an art conservator. Perhaps this luring in of the viewer, requiring very up-close observation, is intended to mimic the very close attention needed to restore or conserve a work: in each case, one must become intimate with the piece.

The quoting of famous works, which is also seen in the horizontal pieces, references D’Antoni’s knowledge of art and art history. The long, narrow pieces each focus on one artist—Lautrec, Michelangelo, Banksy, among others—with several of that artist’s works recreated, sometimes with a funny twist: in the Van Eyck piece, the remake of Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy changes the stick the man is holding to a selfie stick, iPhone attached. These horizontals read like a book. On each side there are usually a couple of square panels featuring reproductions and then a central panel which depicts works hanging in a gallery-like space.

Another thread of influence in these works is surrealism. This is most apparent in the more conventionally proportioned works, which share with all the rest a similarity of great detail. Among them is Black Cat, which features four different styles of fishing boats floating against an almost pure white background, arranged along the bottom quarter of the panel. The boat on the right has a tall pole attached to its bow, which is topped with a seated fisherman who has another boat hanging from his fishing line. The strangeness opens the door to the imagination; the vast empty space inviting you to fill in a narrative. Visually, the restrained palette is soothing; compositionally, the work is well balanced. This painting is as rigorous as it is playful, as serious as it is fun.

"Gentle Surrender" by Eric Zener

In his new body of work—on show at Hespe Gallery through May 31—Marin-based painter Eric Zener addresses an entirely new subject: trees and bushes. The show includes mostly oil-on-canvas work, with only a few mixed-media pieces, the latter of which have dominated recent exhibitions. Known for his dreamy, intensely colorful, layered resin-and-paint images of underwater swimmers and water-focused work, which he’s been creating since 1998, this new direction is a total departure.

As with the earlier work, these pieces are photo-based. But while the hyper-real glossy mixed-media works (which actually begin with a photo transfer) demonstrate the depth and vibrancy Zener has excelled with in the past, it’s the paintings that steal the show. From afar they do maintain a photorealistic quality (indeed, digital images of the paintings may lead you to believe that they are actually photographs), but closer up, gestural brushstrokes reveal the medium; these are painterly works.

The subjects depicted are predominantly of trees with dense and messy branches, sometimes bare and in one case, on fire; up very close, the tangle of foliage verges on abstraction. These subjects could, in many cases, be dead, or just barely surviving a cold winter. The palette is equally as sparse; several works are done in black and white. When leaves and hue are present, the coloring is subtle enough to allow the frenetic composition to hold court. These works are a study in the beauty and intuitive order that can be found in nature’s chaos; they are immediately reminiscent of Lee Friendlander’s images of similar subjects, as from his “New Mexico” series, and have a similar affect on the viewer: they’re calming and mesmerizing.

Zener moves with this series from explorations of life to death—and, in the case of the fire painting, destruction. He moves from wet to dry, sooth to rough, bright to somber, glossy to matte, simple to complex. He’s removed the fluid figure and replaced it with a nature that’s impenetrable. These works are more difficult, and less inviting, and with them Zener hits a whole new stride.

"Away" by Erin Cone

Even with fast and wide praise of her paintings since her first (sell-out) solo show in 2003, Santa Fe–based artist Erin Cone continues to push her work, and it shows. Cone boldly, consciously explores new approaches to form, composition, and palette with each body of work she creates. The recent solo exhibition at Hespe Gallery in San Francisco shows the painter refining and developing. 

Cone paints stylized figures based on herself. (These aren’t self-portraits, however; Cone acts as model, not subject). She says, accurately, that her work is a fusion of figurative realism and abstract minimalism. The figure is almost always solitary against a flat background and usually cropped in an arresting way—off to one side cutting out an arm, three-quarters of the head cut off. These works are as much about forms and arrangement as they are about the figure itself. And they are strong; this is made obvious when noting that the impact of the work isn’t diminished when showing the figure from behind, typically a less engaging view.

Numerous influences and art historical connections can be seen in Cone’s work. The clean, stylized approach of the neoclassicists, albeit with a fresh approach; Cone’s figure, dressed in “office casual,” is a modern woman. Contemporarily, there is a resemblance, especially as regards cropping and also stylization, to the Pasadena-based artist Kenton Nelson. Cone herself states influences from Georgia O’Keefe, Caravaggio, Édouard Manet, Gerhard Richter, and Wayne Thiebaud, among others. Cone’s traditional influences—she’d originally wanted to be a portrait painter in the Old Master style—are contrasted by the bold, commercial feel of graphic design and the slickness of photography. Her surfaces are clean and smooth, unblemished. (Cone worked as a graphic designer at a publishing company before taking the leap to devote herself to painting full time.) Inspiration also comes from collage, fashion, and dance.

For this body of work, Cone has limited her palette. She’s playing with levels of contrast. Some work features less, such as Away, a quiet work with almost a sepia tone appearance. Work such as Allure, showing a partial upper portion of a figure with a bright red shirt again a blue-grey ground, shows more. But gone are, say, the hard orange backgrounds of past work. The new-found subtlety is welcome. Cone also softens her images and adds movement by showing afterimages, hints of where the body just was; it gives us more to see. And the rendering of the figure itself, verging slightly more toward realism, gives these paintings greater life and depth; they energize the work more than in the past, and they’re simply better painted. If there are criticisms to be made, it’s that Cone’s work can tend toward being too pretty and too rigid or graphic—flat, lacking depth. Cone’s to be credited, however, for seriously honing her craft and working through formal concerns. It’s an exciting process to watch and no small pursuit.

 Here we see a dedicated, talented painter steadily developing into an artist.

This review first appeared on VisualArtSource.com.