Photo by Jack GouldMost purveyors of hearts and butterflies and golden roses these days skip through life with two X chromosomes. Despite his fondness for lilies and morning glories, Daniel du Plessis is a man, which is why the soft, womanly aesthetic of his show at the Caged Chameleon, "But Then, Again," is both delightful and surprising. Prejudices being what they are, I might not have liked the show so well had it been the work of a woman: we want our women hard, eschewing hearts in thickets of thorns. But when a man perpetrates pink hearts and puppies? That's edgy vulnerability.
Du Plessis' show includes a mix of tiny handpainted panels and large canvases that look as though they were spray painted over stencils; each is a palimpsest—one resined layer of personal totems built atop another until those at the bottom are only rumors, barely visible symbols of something meaningful only to du Plessis himself.
On the surface, his paintings are mostly labor-intensive Victoriana. He paints gardens both dangerous and lovely. Small birds perch among blossoms, opening their throats to pour out their songs. Butterflies flit. Lilies and pansies bloom, dark and beautiful. But while there are occasional sharp barbs and thorns, du Plessis doesn't display the macabre fascination with death and Ouija-board occultism that marked the Victorian era: there are no Venus's-flytraps in his gardens or pale little girls hovering somberly above gravestones.
What you can have are panels encrusted with opalescent stones—the kind you buy in a craft store to line your fishbowl. They look like tears, or maybe giant globs of spit. Some panels are adorned with jewel-like beads, the better to lay claim to titles like Sugar for My Honey, Will I?and Yesterday's Kisses. They're very sweet, and I mean that in a good way.
With one exception, du Plessis' large canvases are less successful: that one—a field of golden roses blooming on a morphing layer of aquamarine melding into violet and emerald and amber—reminded me of a tropical Billy Al Bengston print, and I coveted it. But the large canvases filling the main gallery are in washed-out shades that aspire to be split-pea. They don't splash about enough to mark the gallery as their own.
For decades, sweet representation and trompe l'oeil painting were considered too gauche for words; instead, horrors like Abstract Expressionism were committed throughout the art world. In the current renaissance of painterly craftsmanship, there are numerous artists with whom one can compare du Plessis' work—New Yorker Thomas Woodruff, for one, a terrifying illustrated man whose fierceness is made puzzling by his penchant for frolicking kitties (his brilliant "Nosegays and Knuckle Sandwiches" exhibit was at the Huntington Beach Art Center before its fall). Woodruff's oeuvre of kitties and fluffy chicks is not meant to be ironic, he says; he means them, man. But his Victoriana, unlike du Plessis', is brimming with that strange duality of fairy-tale mice doing human things and worms in Merchant-Ivory costumes boring through bright apples. He's all about the collision between life and death—in extravagant hats.
Du Plessis' garden scenes, though not figurative, are also reminiscent of the newly rejuvenated Edgar Leeteg (velvet paintings, for God's sake! Of bare-breasted Tahitians!), Peter Alexander (sunsets) and Norman Rockwell, whose unabashed sentimentality made art personages retch for decades. But Rockwell's newfound critical respect is double-edged: while many cultural critics such as Dave Hickey acclaim him, there are others who either pretend to like him to stay in step with the Zeitgeist or openly sneer when they say his name. But for the resuscitation of such kitsch, du Plessis would probably remain contemptible for his lack of irony.
And that's a pity. For critics to bemoan the melding of low culture and high bespeaks a snotty elitism that simply won't go away. For sentiment and vulnerability to be considered gauche—and only cold, hard planes representing intellect to be tolerated—makes for soulless, frigid exhibits that feel as dated and stuck in the '80s as Flock of Seagulls or Kajagoogoo. If Alexander hadn't already made a name for himself in the LA art scene before he started on his sunset series (a subject at the time limited to tacky decoupage driftwood clocks), we surely would not be treated to one of the finest exhibits of the year: "In This Light" at the Orange County Museum of Art. He would have been shunned.
Du Plessis is none of these artists—neither as celebrated as Rockwell Rediscovered nor as profound as Alexander. But his works are frank, open and undeniably pretty. They suck you into layers of resin, and like a fly in honey, you stay there, like a Woodruff worm in a rosy apple.
"But Then, Again" at the Caged Chameleon, 1519 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-5137. Sat.-Sun., noon-4 p.m. Through Oct. 10. Free.