Why is painting so pleasing when it pretends to be something it’s not? The best works in New York artist Joanne Mattera’s show “Diamond Life,” at Marcia Wood Gallery, are impostors. The artist uses the familiar material of paint and encaustic to create works on panel with the striated look and nubby texture of tweed or 1950s upholstery fabric.
The 17-by-17-inch pieces in the “Diamond Life” series experiment with color and texture in a variety of ways, showing the malleability and play of that most alchemical of media: paint. The paintings can exhibit a remarkable depth of color, from cobalt to lemon-lime, that can suggest multiple yarns knit into one integrated weave. Mattera lays bare the device in the sunny yellow or grasshopper green undercolors that peek out like a slip beneath a dress to show just how the artist achieves her effects
Less successful, Mattera’s use of tactile elements, which works so well in the “Diamond” series, fails to thrill in larger works that prefer busyness to simplicity. In the 45-by-45-inch “Romb,” Mattera globs on clothing-detergent-blue encaustic like pancake batter. Forgoing a simple diamond shape in pieces such as “Gemo” and “Rummu,” she becomes fixated on repetition: rows upon rows of diamonds and pyramids, less appealing than her more restrained and subtle “Diamond Life” series.
North Carolina-based artist Nancy Baker has a taste for unconventional pairings, too. Her glitter, watercolor and collage-on-paper works, also at Marcia Wood Gallery, suggest the Vietnam-era trope of a daisy placed into a gun barrel repeated ad infinitum. Like James Rosenquist with a flatter, more graphic Victorian decoupage imagination, Baker’s “New/Improved” mashes up grenades and guns, plastic toy soldiers and other symbols of destruction with a girlyfied catalogue of glitter, flowers and other decorative gewgaws. In “Charnel,” Baker gooses the luxury French brand Chanel and its iconic intersecting “C’s” in a collage whose flowing green diamonds, mannequins and skeletons in top hats suggest a challenge to crass and bleating icons of luxury. (“Frag Grenade,” below.)
Like Mattera’s work, the busy, action-filled images can suggest a kind of tapestry or wallpaper. It’s our own consumption-wallpapered imaginations, colonized by Porky Pig and Coco Chanel. In Baker’s work, everything is a product in a shop window, set into a cushy pillow of velvet or lit like the Hope Diamond, the better for the artist to critique the core American value — above God and country — of merchandising. In place of a wink, Baker loves glitter or a graphic sparkle to enunciate her sly attitude.
The third artist now on display at the gallery, New Orleans-based Mark Bercier, is in some ways the most conventional. He does quirky, color-soaked portraits of children and teenagers, often on commission, in his show “Youth.” His style combines the otherworldly look of Alice Neel’s intensely colored portraits with the funky attitude and style of Southern folk art. (“Luke,” below.)
Like his folk artist brethren, Bercier can get carried away, even a little obsessive about his favorite devices. In a less effective strategy that tends to upstage his subjects, he has created a “personal iconography” of “Healin’ Symbols” signs — ducks, ice cream cones, eyes — done in the style of children’s’ drawings. They may stand as a kind of shorthand for his subjects’ inner lives, but they come off as far too cute. That busy embellishment in the background is a shame. It detracts from the genuinely soulful quality that Bercier is able to evoke in his subjects, even within his “faux-naive” style.
The three shows will run through May 28.