"Wesselmania," by Gary Paterson.

Many works included in Figuratively Speaking—the art show now on display at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus—could very easily be found in a higher-end gallery on El Paseo or Palm Canyon Drive. The show’s curator, Ryan “Motel” Campbell—whose own works in the show are notably strong—expertly selected drawings, paintings and sculpture that depict how artists capture the human condition.

The show consists of some 30 works; it extends from the first-floor atrium/gallery space to the second floor. Unfortunately, a number of the larger pieces presented on the second floor are difficult to appreciate fully; they are too large for the space, and the lighting is poor.

Russell Jacques’ bronze, “She,” elegantly and simply presents his subject. While not as simplified and streamlined as, say, the sculptures of Constantin Brâncusi, “She” shows Jacques aiming to find the essence of the female form.  The not-highly-polished sculpture creates a midcentury sensibility, with its various curved surfaces.

Gary Paterson’s canvases are the show’s most fun. His approach is a clear nod to pop-art masters who take aim at popular culture (e.g., soup cans). Here, however, there is a difference: Paterson takes aim at those artists.

Paterson’s backdrop is a geometric pattern. He notes that his “patterns are created primarily from textiles—stitch patterns, quilting patterns—and in some cases using Notan, light/dark patterning originating in Japan.” Paterson’s subjects are also seen through the same pattern, usually painted in lighter colors. Essentially, the subject lives between the background pattern and what might be thought of as a foreground scrim.

“Blue Nude” is clearly inspired by the Henri Matisse classic. Paterson creates a background grid in ice-blue and off-white, which continues across the front of the nude—now in a darker blue that contrasts with his painting of Matisse’s iconic figure.

With “Wesselmania,” the artist spoofs Tom Wesselmann, melding the characteristics of the late pop-art icon’s works. Paterson’s brightly colored geometric rectangles, on the diagonal, create a backdrop and a sense of movement behind two nude women lying—or perhaps wrestling—on a couch. They are less people and more object, like many Wesselmann nudes: The women have big hair and no eyes, and, as the artist notes, “come across as brainless.” Behind the women are typical Wesselmann props (e.g., flowers, a stylized partial sun, flat planes of color outlined in black).

Paterson’s more-subtle use of the aforementioned grid in front of the women makes the viewer seem like a voyeur looking through sheer bedroom curtains.

Meridy Volz’s paintings—both large and midsize canvases—are among the most socially conscious pieces in the show. Up close, her use of intense, bright colors (yellow, red, blue) and sharp textured brushwork seem disjointed and, at times, jarring. However, with some distance, the impasto softens, and the imagery—even when Volz addresses difficult subjects—becomes inviting.

“Betty in Repose,” a large horizontal canvas, captures a woman, quite likely homeless, asleep on a park bench, on top of what appear to be her belongings. In the background, clusters of figures are clearly doing their own thing. These background figures—much smaller and in muted colors—push Betty forward, making her seem more isolated and disenfranchised.

Volz’s smaller painting, “Incarcerated Boys,” conveys a similar sense of aloneness. Her composition includes three adolescents positioned behind vibrant blue-white bars. The contrast is disconcerting: While the prison bars are vibrant, the boys appear isolated, confused and in disbelief.

“Socialite” is Volz’s most-optimistic painting. Dressed in a colorful, well-draped dress with a matching turban, the statuesque model stands alone. The socialite gazes away—even though her head looks straight toward the viewer. “Socialite” is reminiscent of the works of American impressionists like William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent. However, Volz applies her own distinct style (thick brush stokes, intense bright colors), creating an entirely different experience.

The weakest works in the show come from Alyssa Bixon and Luis Costo. Both artists are technically proficient; however, their paintings seem derivative and studied. Other artists in the show include Temo Aldrete, Larry Caveney, Gesso Cocteau, Marcy Gregory, Ming C. Lowe, Andres Orlowski, Adam Rodrigues, Laurel Thomas and Robert Yancy.

Figuratively Speaking is on display in University Building B on the University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert campus, at 75080 Frank Sinatra Drive, through Jan. 31. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 760-834-0800, or visit palmdesert.ucr.edu/programs/exhibitions.html.

Based in Cathedral City, Victor S. Barocas is a photographer, author and educator/business coach. He can be reached at Victor@VictorsVisions.com.

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