05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blague d'Art

Well, so much for deadlines - at least those dictated by the right brain. March 4 is come and gone, Caesar...

But lest the Ides bestride us before we know it like a colossus, I'll jump now into the breach. Perhaps it was folly to aspire to a twice-a-week column. Not that there isn't enough to write about, but there aren't hours in the day to do them justice (or, in certain cases, adequate harm). So expect to see a new post every week, and if I can file any more frequently, it's extra credit.

I'd set us up for a volley last time with "Painting Is Back." The declaration was not a call to arms (or, perhaps, brushes). It wasn't even a provocation. I don't make art, much less paint, so I have no right to lead or herd practicing artists into this corral or that pasture. It was more of a report, a sense of things - and, of course, I qualified what delight the declaration might infer with "Is That A Good Thing?" I love painting - love it the way someone who dines out all the time loves good cooking. I don't prefer painting to, say, collage or black-and-white photography or welded sculpture or multitrack video or what-have-you, but painting affects me, as I guess it might you, uniquely. No matter how flat and unmodulated the surface of a painting, it is still a surface that exists in real time and space, a surface that bears visual information as real and obdurate as the wall behind it and yet as capable of illusion as my computer screen. A painting has real dimension, in every direction.

And this is why I think that painting is back now. We need it more than ever. Its physical reality and relative stasis provide us with the kind of stimulus the computer screen cannot provide. Indeed, the fact that our lives now revolve around that screen sparks a need in us to look at something else, not instead but as well, something that is tangible and stable, extant in our somatic field even as it acts upon our retinas. Sculpture, of course, does this as well, and sculpture is also, er, back for many of the same reasons. But we seem to be acculturated - or maybe hard-wired - to respond to pictures, even if those pictures are purely formal arrangements on a plane. And paintings do it for us the way featureless glowing screens don't.

What prompted me to declare that painting is back is the surge in impressive painting shows, even in a town like Los Angeles that has never really had a painting tradition like New York or San Francisco (at least until recently - too recently to call it already a "tradition"). And admittedly, among the painting shows that have caught my eye here in L.A., half seem to have been imported from the other coast. But gallerists, notorious (and pitiable) for their need to answer to public taste, have gone out on a limb to import not just paintings, but art that asserts the "condition of painting." That says something.

Margaret Bowland

I'll discuss the abstract painting next time around, but I'm most piqued by the figurative painting of Margaret Bowland, a Brooklynite (with deep roots in North Carolina) whose subjects are little short of controversial and whose technique is little short of old-master virtuosic. Is the in-your-facedness of Bowland's pictures what keeps them "contemporary"? Is it just a gimmick to render emphatically unusual subject matter - subject matter that doesn't just speak to, but taunts, contemporary social convention - as if Velazquez or Rubens were painting it? It is a "gimmick," but that gimmick is Bowland's starting point, not her goal. She is not only genuinely committed to the myriad optical possibilities of tonal realism, but to the beauty - the visual beauty - of people whose differentness startles, even repels, us.

The majority of Bowland's canvases on view at Thomas Paul Fine Art (7270 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, through next Saturday (if not longer) feature African-American women and girls. The grown women are nude, the girls are dressed prettily, and their visages for the most part are caked in whiteface. This is not a gesture of racial negation, according to Bowland (herself Caucasian), but an exploration of "the need we have... to whiten," especially in connection with the wedding ritual. "The Japanese," continues Bowland, "were whitening Geishas at the same time African tribes were painting ash on initiates in their holiest ceremonies. Women in Elizabethan times and for centuries after, risked lead poisoning to slather white paint upon their faces."

In other paintings Bowland pairs her nude Black model(s) with a Latina dwarf and/or a Caucasian woman who has no hair on her body. Besides the range in skin tone such pairings allow Bowland, the couplings finally bespeak a woman's peculiar sense of (in)visibility. The African-American woman (unpainted except for one appearance in blueface) appears perforce the most "normal" figure here, and thus the most subject to the social gaze. We turn away much sooner from the dwarf and from the bald woman. The artist does not, however. Velazquez's and Goya's sympathetic regard for their courts' dwarves echoes in Bowland's, and her fascination with the alopecetic white woman - whose cranial tattoo evinces that woman's own acceptance of her condition - also goes beyond the technical challenge of painting such a figure, to the challenge of returning that figure to center stage.

If we admire Bowland's ability to paint - and her rendition of space as well as tone is little short of thrilling - can she make us admire who she paints? Can her chutzpah, perhaps combined with her painter chops, overcome our cynicism, our visual distaste for the "other," and even our well-intentioned pity? It worked in my case. The pictures did not manipulate my responses, they moderated them. They did not insist that I look upon these women as fellow humans, but simply invited me to accept them and become comfortably intimate with them. Without inspiring desire, perverse or otherwise, the paintings return the nobility of the ordinary to extraordinary people.

Bowland has used her skills as a painter to breathe presence into her models and to neutralize, but not negate, their exoticism. They are not freaks à la Diane Arbus, but people whose appearance makes an end run around our expectations. Could this be done in any other medium? Not, I suspect, quite this forthrightly or spectacularly - or convincingly.