In an effort to bring some culture to you plebeians, I recently trekked up to Berkeley, Calif. to see Jesse Michael’s Fine Art show. Clad in my best black and white stripped turtleneck, dark sunglasses and red beret, I tucked a Dunhill into my cigarette holder and stepped into the Mythos Fine Art Gallery, nestled in the downtown Berkeley art district.
Appearing alongside two other artists, Michael’s work was running under the theme of “Paintings of Mysteries.” Indeed, his artist statement reflected that he had chosen the theme of hardboiled detective noir as the common thread for this exhibition, both because the world of noir seems to mimic, yet not duplicate, our own world, and because the world of dames, drugs and detectives outwardly projects interior contemplation and conflict without explicitly demonstrating such a projection.
As a whole, Michaels’ art was bold and thick, but ambiguous in meaning. Many of his paintings featured rough '40s types, but each of them seemed to have a look of non-emotion locked into their faces--a trick much harder to replicate than one would think. Instead of the characters showing what concerned them or what they thought of the situations they found themselves in, we, the viewers, were left to assemble just what the subjects were saying by sorting through their nearby collection of objects, most often including cocktails, guns and empty chairs.
This effect was most expertly illustrated on one of Michaels’ featured pieces, The Killer. The scene itself featured a weather-beaten but tough middle-aged man sitting alone at a dimly lit table with a gun. The spot at the table was just out of frame, and closest to the viewer, and most curiously, the handle of the gun, laying on the table, was pointed towards us with the barrel somewhat perilously pointed at the subject.
Such a scene illustrated Michaels’ deft skill of directed ambiguity. It's as if he is suggesting that “killers,” or even the average person, find themselves alone, and by doing their hateful acts, are in fact removing themselves from society and placing themselves in danger. Or perhaps we are the killer, as there is a spot at the table for the viewer and the gun is closer to us than the subject, and that through our conscious and unconscious acts, we are killing others through our actions, which in turn makes the others seem dangerous or undesirable to us.
“Clearly indebted to Miro and Picasso,” stated a woman standing next to me to her companion. She bore the first few signs of graying hair, and was wrapped in a stylish, but not flashy, brown leather coat while wearing jeans that could not be purchased at a chain. From her hand dangled the keys to a Saab. She was, if you will excuse my bluntness, a typical representation of a Berkeley professional.
“Indebted,” I shook my head. “Influenced, perhaps, but certainly not indebted. Why, just look at ze heaviness of ze lines in this painting. Far too bold and purposeful than Picasso, yes? And, if I may, madam, look at how Michaels masterfully bleeds his work from thick, heavy layers, to a purposeful blur where lines which were once definite are now intertwined, mixing the subject with his background, suggesting that he is one and ze same with his environment. Far too ambiguous for Miro.”
The woman stepped back, but I continued my explanation, “Michaels, eh is no mere, copycat, yes? It seems to me that his art is direct. While he may have carried his surroundings with him, he certainly does not ask to himself, ‘Why, where would Picasso, put zis line? I will, also note, madam, that in his artist statement, Michaels points to both of these sources as inspiration. You mere parroting of zis information neither impresses me, nor valuates your... contribution.”
Next, I moved to Michaels' work, The City. While The Killer seemed to be a snapshot of a particular moment, The City was much more chaotic. The central piece featured three disembodied men in a car, again, each with no trace of emotion on their faces. But around the car floated a woman’s face, a man falling or breakdancing, a shadow of a city skyline and a third man floating outside the car door. The pieces in this scene were much harder to put together, suggesting to me, that there is no one variable that makes a person whole, and each action is guided by a thousand other events, some related, some barely more than inconsequential.
Michaels' use of grey in the painting, prevalent through his work, suggests a dim worldview. The characters seem to be as weighed down by the paint as they are defined. The use of scenes breaking apart and smashing together exemplified the chaos of modern life, as well as existence, showing that life is not so much a string of events as a series of continuous Big Bangs.
“Marvelous,” exclaimed an older gentleman, standing next to me. He had on a thick cotton sweater. His hair, was was bald at the top but shot out like wires to the sides suggested that he preferred his hair unkempt as it worked as a metaphor for his psyche.
I puffed out three tight rings of smoke. “Indeed,” I agreed.
“Clearly,” he continued, “This is a commentary on the intricate dynamics of inter-gender relations.”
“Clearly?!” I exclaimed. “You see zis, pandemonium, of a scene, and declare that it is clearly one thing?! You must be mistaken. You see, I posit that Michaels’ work does not act as a manifesto, pushing a particular statement, but rather as a reflection, a series of tools used to interact with a particular world, or mindset, suggesting the correlation between things, but certainly, in no circumstance, merely stating a single thought process!”
Disgusted, I moved to the show’s most contrasting piece, which may have also functioned as the Coup de grâce. While the other pieces dealt heavily in noir imagery, Chess featured a chessboard, which through its defining lines, at either end of the board, dissolved into two disembodied hands testing their merit against each other on the board itself. While the background was a heavy yellow, the foreground of the confrontation seemed to be as wildly as it was orchestrated, balancing chaos and composure.
To me, it seemed to be the theme of the evening taken to the most abstract level. While all the pieces seemed to paint the world of a subject defined by his surroundings, and in turn, defining the surroundings through the subject, Chess seem to removed all elements which do not serve to define or express the subject. Absent the pieces themselves, chess is a purely mental game with no physicality at all. Hence, only the hands, boards and pieces were left in frame, tied together. For, in the world of chess, all that matters is the information of location of the pieces--the physical world is irrelevant, and thus, excluded from the picture.
In the center of the room was the artist himself, unassumingly clothed in down-toned colors. But, as with his works, his own clothes, while mostly neatly pressed, showed just a bit of dishevelment, as did his hair, which was mostly combed, but not quite, and the small amount of stubble on his face. As he was surrounded by viewers, I dared not address the subject, because to interact with the environment would be to change it, and the work, was as unique as it should be. My own interference would do nothing but taint the paint.
Jesse Michaels’ works are on display through Jan. 29. More information, and pictures, are available here.