All This Senseless Beauty

Peter Blake Gallery gets it right

Laguna gallerist Peter Blake has a big mushy tendrefor the LA heroes. You know, the Light & Space '60s toms whose resinous cloud boxes and baubles were created in the time they could spare from catting around Santa Monica and Venice, young and tanned and in their own minds immortal.

I once wrote a festering scab of a piece about an exhibit—the exhibit was called, if I remember correctly, "LA Heroes," and it featured all those men who thought they were gods among lesser LA men—at Peter Blake Gallery; I may have called it "puky," or "vomitous," or perhaps "chunkerrific," and Blake didn't speak to me for six years.

Maybe after this column he'll start inviting me to his parties.

They're different LA heroes this time: Don Bachardy and Stephen Douglas instead of John McCracken and Ed Ruscha, and they don't have the It Boy reputations the Light & Space dudes did. They're not boy wonders. They're—ack—elder statesmen.

Throw in one of OC's own heroes—Jorg Dubin, named OC's best artist by this here very paper—and his young kind-of protégé, Jeff Peters, and you get a fantabulous survey of the best portraiture now coming out. Sure, the Cal Arts whippersnappers are finally rebelling against tired conceptualism and embracing the hiply retro portrait genre. But these are the guys who are showing them how to do it.

Don Bachardy gets the front room. The now-aged portraitist had been for years the much-younger lover of the writer Christopher Isherwood, and he had Isherwood's paternal encouragement and one-man cultural finishing school when he was a pretty young thing starting out. He has painted everyone in Hollywood and the Westside; an exhibit last year boasted hundreds of Academy Award winners and nominees alone, most painted from life in his Santa Monica hillside home. But his almost-Fauvist watercolors here are unknown young men. They are pouty of lip and long of lash and I don't know if they're more in love with him (and the paternal encouragement and finishing school he could bestow) or with the idea that someone's looking at them. Look, mom! I'm a sloe-eyed muse! Whichever the case, I couldn't help thinking of the Sophie B. Hawkins song. Damn! He wishes he was his lover!

What Bachardy thinks of these young men is unclear—aside from the fact that he encourages them to pose in a doelike, objectified way that may or may not be consciously demeaning on his part. Generally, in a sitting, he'll produce two flattering portraits and one real ugger. (I've sat for him myself, and the third was shattering.) Is the unflattering portrait what he really thinks of his subject? Is he just being contrary? Are the first two painted so you might want to buy them, and the third is the artistic outlet with its unbecoming intensity? And the young man painted here, with the hard nipples and the soft, slumberous eyes as he gazes back into Bachardy's gaze: Does his third portrait betray a hustler's venality? I don't know. Only the beautiful ones—and they are, Blanche, they are—are on display.

The next room is Stephen Douglas'. All triptychs—with the sacredness the form implies—Douglas's paintings make saints and wise men of his friends, which means they're as much about starfucking as they always are. Douglas really, really has cool friends.

And as if having cool and famous friends weren't enough, Douglas is an extraordinary painter as well. He mixes a dash of expressionist with a pound of Dutch Master, making his hyper-real portraits slightly dizzy, as if the air currents and electrical energy surrounding and emanating from his subjects were made flesh.

In Heir Apparent, Peter Alexander (Light & Space dude) rises from a Vermeerish black void. He looks to the side in one panel, and then to the other side in its opposite. In the middle panel, he confronts the viewer and the painter with a sly and schoolmarmish look. Ancestral Dirt features painter Jorg Dubin wearing a black veil on his head while he fingers his nipples. In the middle panel, he screams demonically.

Dan McCleary gives pencil portraits on white. They have a nice economy of line, but they're too economical. They tell as much about their subjects as a police sketch would. While I'm sure they're very good likenesses, they seem the work of an extremely talented and diligent high school art student, and seem out of place with the lush oils and eye-candy watercolors of the other artists.

In the last room, works by Dubin and Jeff Peters hang together. Dubin does his typical louche women—this time, Girl With a Golden Phallus—draping themselves over ottomans while grabbing onto shiny (yet discreet) bullet-like dildos. Homage to the Culture is a departure from Dubin's recent sex-first works. A young girl, foreshortened and stumpy yet muscular, stands with her big, veiny feet firmly planted, presenting herself full-on to the viewer. She holds a surfboard; her hair is wet. There is nothing California-kitten about her; she has a straightforward, tomboy can of whoop-ass in her belt.

And Peters offers a series of several headshots of model-pretty young women juxtaposed on a powder-blue and lavender sky. His sky strokes are blocky yet soft, creating an impression like that when a computer image hasn't yet reached its high resolution.

They're beautifully done, Peters' pretty blondes in their braids. But they're so pretty; compared to Dubin's stable of sly, witty women with their heels half-off and their drinks in their hands as they toast, they seem as unformed as fetuses. They haven't lived yet; they're blank slates and lovely innocents, and where's the fun in that? It makes you pine for the time 15 minutes before when you were looking at Bachardy's oversexed young men, with the ill-concealed (and a little off-putting) promise in their eyes.

I'll be waiting for my invitation, Peter Blake.

Peter Blake Gallery, located at 326 N. Pacific Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9994, is open daily, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thru Aug. 23.
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