There’s a mesmerizing nature about intricate detail minutely rendered that inspires awe in viewers of such paintings. We ponder and even exclaim, “How did he do that? How fine was the brush? How intense the concentration? How much more real could it be?”
The problem is that the answers to those questions are largely irrelevant to the quality of a work of art.
Jared Small, in “The Germane,” his third solo exhibition at David Lusk Gallery, on view through May 18, inspires such questions because the way he depicts his typical subject matter — old and usually weather-worn houses — is so infinitesimally accurate that the effect is almost hallucinatory. He combines the figures of the worn or ramshackle dwellings, with few exceptions positioned head-on so we confront the faade directly before us, with abstract passages that contrast with the hyper (or “magic”) realism of the houses and the equally realistic and evocative landscapes that surround them.
A painting that is 80 percent representation and 20 percent abstraction, however, comes off as being neither really one nor the other. One gets the point. The abstract passages of over-painting and scraping, swaths and drips, establish a sense that’s both infinite and insecure and that unsettles the permanence with which Small’s utter realism endows his subjects. The abstraction also isolates his subjects, whether they are old houses or the blues musicians who are included in the exhibition, at the same time as it throws over the paintings a feeling of blurred remembrance and nostalgia.
Even more than realism — whether mere representation or the sort of intensified detail that embodies Small’s technical prowess — abstraction requires not just a technical but also an aesthetic and a philosophical commitment from an artist. Used simply as a device or as one method among many that can be deployed on a picture-plane diminishes the power of abstraction to create a meaningful transcendent or material experience.
In one sense, then, the viewer is drawn irresistibly because of their surface allure to Small’s portraits of weathered shotgun houses, as in “Gray Rose” or “Magnolia,” a Queen Anne cottage, as in “Focus,” or a Victorian Italianate town house, as in “Pale Rose,” while in another sense, one is distracted because the brilliant glamour of oil on panel and the fantastic array of detail seem to lead to nothing beyond themselves.
Included in the exhibition is a series of smaller oil-on-Mylar pieces that reveal what may be the heart of Small’s enterprise. These depictions of (again) old houses and buildings and of blues musicians underscore the lack of dimensionality of the artist’s conceit. The paintings of musicians could be illustrations in Playboy or Esquire for an article about the blues in Memphis.
Jared Small is certainly a gifted painter, but he needs much more thought and seasoning and perhaps a change of view to become a gifted artist.