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Beast, Emerging, 2005
Oil on panel
7 x 5 in.
© Richard Laurent 2005

Richard Laurent: Beauty and Beast

May 3 - 27, 2006

Fine Arts Building Gallery
410 S. Michigan Ave., Ste 433
Chicago, IL 60605
tel.: 312-913-0537
hours: Wed-Sat 12-6p

We are quick to gloss into opposites, and must take a moment to straighten our thoughts. It is 'beauty and beast' in Richard Laurent: Beauty and Beast, not 'beauty versus beast' -- not necessarily a state of opposition, but two distinct elements for melding in order to explore the ways in which each casts illumination on the other. The artist's previous solo exhibition at the Fine Arts Building Gallery, Heavy Petting: The Painted Animal (Nov 2004), employed animal imagery as a means of expressing characteristic human moods and behaviors. Richard Laurent: Beauty and Beast evolves and deepens these explorations. Seventeen recent works in oil are on exhibit through May 27, 2006.

Beauty itself is a category of evaluative judgment. Traditionally bound by formal rules, as in the standards for beauty of Classical Greece or the elaborate philosophies of aesthetics in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century it became scrutinized, questioned and even out-and-out dismissed as a necessary property of art. To explore attitudes toward formal beauty in art, particularly the arguments raised for and against it in the present day, is to tap a fascinating and protean topic. Questions of whether it is universal and intuitive, or culturally-acquired and learned; meditations on whether it incites to good or to moral laxness; thoughts on whether it is simply skin-deep glamour, or reflects the mathematics of ideal proportions; even whether it is masculine or feminine, powerful or powerless, are only a slight sampling of the arguments which can be brought to bear.

Handed such a provocative kernel by the exhibition's title, one can't help but seek its presence in each of the works. One of the most immediate and classic associations with beauty or physical perfection is that of the female body. Nearly all the figures in Beauty and Beast are female. Along the north wall, three small works each entitled A Little Beauty (each oil on canvas: 8 x 8 in.) picture a woman (possibly, three women) variously, one with a sweetly tousled mass of hair, two with a starkly shorn head. Despite the short-cropped closeness there is still something appealing to be found in the women with the cropped hair, arguing against the notion that beauty is merely glamour or skin-deep. Armor (oil on canvas: 48 x 36 in.) portrays a figure with the classical perfection of Greek statuary, with voluptuous buttocks and contrapposto stance, but adorned with thorns, an element of touch-me-not warning or self-protection contradicting her decorous appeal.

At times, melding beauty with beast rouses a wildness from both. Three works feature female figures whose whose curving lineaments rise each into an animal head or mask. Goddess (collage, oil on canvas: 7 x 5 in.) portrays an ornamental surround of decorative patterns, some geometric, some curvilinear, which frame an attractive dark-charcoal female body. with a glaring, jackal- or wolf-like head. The framing, the simplicity of the rendering, and the otherworldly animal head (reminiscent of the jackal-lord Anubis, ancient Egyptian god whose duties included judging the dead) lends this female figure a totemic quality. Egyptians, Assyrians, and other ancient cultures worshipped male and female figures with such heads, the staring features of hawk or lion, cow or jackal signaling an inhuman beauty, a presence of something alien, otherworldly, and often with the cruel quickness associated with its animal counterpart. In Goddess the female figure is lent both fascination and treachery by the vulpine features. Beauty and beast together create something at once more than, and less than, human.

The theme matures in Jaguar Spirit (oil on panel: 10 x 8 in.). In place of the sleekly idealized body of Goddess this is a real-life, middle-aged female, with sagging breasts and slight rolls of midriff. Semi-reclined on her seat, with a white drapery beneath her, her head is that of a jaguar, heavy cat mouth open and fangs displayed, not in a snarl, but rather as in the powerful open-mouthed animal head of Mayan carvings. Offering herself in an open pose with her body tilted part-way back, she suggests spirit, power, a complex sensuality, and danger. The oil on panel work is mounted inside a folk-carved wooden frame, with two small doors standing open to reveal the image, thus even more strongly offering its image as one of totem or goddess. At the same time the realistic quality of the figure keeps one foot in the literal world as well. Which is to be considered the beauty, the body beginning to age -- powerful, but past youth-oriented standards -- or the swift sleekness of the animal head with its feral power?

Animalito (oil on canvas: 36 x 36 in.) brings to the exploration a younger, elemental wildness. Against a varied ground of yellow-tan and olive, with touches of live red like tongues of flame, stands a nude girl in a leopard mask. The mask suggests animal playfulness, young animal vigor. At the same time it conceals her facial expression, and the slitted eyes can be read variously as playful, cat-dozing, or disapproving. Dark lines delineate the figure, giving it strength and definition; lambent touches of red along the shoulders and arms lend depth; the background holds the smeared colors of a savannah. Beast and beauty are both beautiful here. She is animalistic, playful, infused with a kittenish vibrance. But curiously, over her visible ear, past the edge of the mask, there is a yellow, pointed animal ear... so is the mask really a mask, after all?

'Beast' suggests nature, a state of wildness, close to the instinctual drives; even a degree of savagery. In Goddess, Jaguar Spirit and Animalito it is the beast's head on the lovely woman that gives us pause, crowning her aesthetic charms with the totemic countenance of wildness or unpredictability. Even the kittenish Animalito one feels might wield small needle-sharp claws. Is this a perversion of beauty, or an elevation? In each of these images, though they cannot be said to fully fit traditional standards of feminine beauty, the animal-headed women seem iconic rather than monstrous.

At times, beast -- and beauty -- seem to be expressive of humanity, of the motive spark of human reason that adds both awareness and an often regretful wisdom. Beast, Emerging (oil on panel: 7 x 5 in.) and Beauty, Unclaimed (oil on panel: 7 x 5 in.) are displayed side by side. In Beast, Emerging a chimp in white satin pantaloons faces the viewer, mahl stick and palette (traditional tools of the painter) in hand. His eyes hold the attitude one sees in historic portraits of court dwarfs, the introverted and slightly defensive look of one aware of his own absurdity. Beauty, Unclaimed portrays a female figure glancing back over her shoulder; her uplifted arm, fluttering hair and the dynamics of diagonals in the composition seem to indicate a fleet sprint: one thinks of Diana outrunning the hounds, or Atalanta and the race for the golden apples, but most of all, a sylvan female -- whether wood sprite or human -- fleeting through the bright outdoors with nary a care. The chimp, 'ugly' beast on a sullen gray-blue ground, bears a heavy humanity, freighted with slow wisdom; the pretty fleet-footed female glances back in her flight with the untroubled eyes of a woodland deer.

Still other works in this exhibition offer up an enigmatic, magic-realist imagery, whose mysterious collusion of scene and symbol presents much to reward a second look. Taken in context of the exhibition's themes, Tree of Knowledge (oil on canvas: 16 x 12 in.), Kingdom (oil on canvas: 12 x 12 in.) and What Lies Beneath (oil on canvas: 16 x 12 in.) seem to offer up allegories of beauty as truth, as evidence of the sublime, as something fascinating to the point of folly.

Beauty is not necessarily opposed to 'beast', though it can be. Beauty may be opposed to other things as well. Ugliness, for example; the absence of beauty; banality; or the absence of any standard at all. The artist noted at the gallery that a group of art students brought to view the exhibition did not apply the word beauty at all. The idea of beauty as a formal quality was not even within their experience as young artists. Beauty was anything that anyone wanted it to be, or was simply a function of mass popularity, whatever was in fashion at the moment.

Perhaps all the better, then, for an exhibition to remind us of beauty's long and varied history as an artistic value, and the many aspects of it, once embraced. In these symbolic and enigmatic works, beauty is studied as not only as opposed with or alongside 'beast', but as embodying various facets of formality, representation, comparison and contrast. Richard Laurent: Beauty and Beast, featuring seventeen works in oil, will be on exhibit at the Fine Arts Building Gallery through May 27, 2006. With the Memorial Day holiday weekend fast approaching this is an excellent time for a gallery visit.

Though not part of the exhibition proper, a further painting by the artist is on exhibition in the Member's Gallery, which features a continuous, ongoing rotation of work by Fine Arts Building member artists. Coffee with Caravaggio is a sprightly image, capturing the tempestuous personality of the 16th-century painter as he brandishes his red-tipped brushes and invites one to join him. A cup of coffee stands on the sunlit windowsill whose illusionistic depths brings you right into the painting, and the whole is executed in proper Caravaggist manner: a lively illustration that is at once psychological portrait and artistic tribute.

A second solo exhibition, Charles Gneich: Emerging From Darkness, is on display in the Fine Arts Building Gallery's adjoining gallery space, also through May 27, 2006

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Heavy Petting: The Painted Animal was reviewed by ArtScope.net in November 2004 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/artex_hvypetting1104.shtml).

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