Back to the '60s and the 1600s With Andrew Holder and Ray Donley

Sweetness and Dark
Back to the ‘60s . . . and the 1600s, with Andrew Holder and Ray Donley

 

This week we have an interesting little juxtaposition, two art shows that could hardly be more diametrically opposed. One is cute and soft and simplified, the other is dark and intense and show-off-y. Despite their differences, these shows do have a few things in common: both are quite beautiful, and neither is entirely successful. You could also say that both are powerfully retro—one is a throwback to the Summer of Love, the other a throwback to the days of Caravaggio.

“Neon Frontier,” Andrew Holder’s show at the Hibbleton Gallery, is cool, colorful, mindless fun. In Holder’s world, the laws of scale, perspective and even gravity are suspended. He creates storybook scenes of choo-choo trains, puffy white clouds, little villages on stilts, and mountain-sized but friendly geese. This is a gentle, nursery school psychedelia, like the illustrations for a copy of Mother Goose rhymes published during the Nixon era. You detect echoes of Peter Max, the opening titles of The Partridge Family, and perhaps even the Saturday morning freak-outs of Sid and Marty Krofft.

There is much to enjoy in Holder’s work. His pair of mounted deer-head statues, all painted up with crazy little scenes that run from their snouts down to their necks, are as baffling as they are delightful. Holder’s imaginative powers have transformed the Hibbelton into the set for the best kiddie show you never saw; you find yourself surrounded by kooky colors and weird shapes.

But looking at his work, I felt a bit of the same vague dissatisfaction that I do when I encounter a great new rock band who write songs that sound just a bit too much like the products of a bygone age: ’60s garage, or ’70s punk, or ’80s new wave. Being an anachronism is fine, to a certain point, but retro is a dangerous game for an artist. Take it too far, and the next thing you know, you’re Oasis. (Talented guys, but their Beatlemania routine was already getting a little tired during the Clinton administration.)

Holder’s work does look terrific, and it’s worth seeing just for the sheer pothead playfulness of it. But gazing at his images, I don’t really detect any strong emotion beyond nostalgia. There aren’t a lot of people in his pieces; he seems much more comfortable depicting buildings and the occasional weird animal, making his dreamscapes feel like lonely places despite all their colorful distractions. His paintings are like illustrations without the accompanying stories. “Once upon a time, there was a little village in a magical land with triangle trees and a pink sun . . .” Yeah, and then what happened?

*     *     *

Nobody is ever going to accuse Ray Donley of lacking passion. His work is brooding to the point where it seems a little crabby. He paints realistic portraits of people lurking in the darkness—many bosomy ladies and men in weird hats. Beautiful lunatics all, standing in dim shafts of light, their faces illuminated just so as they peer out at you with appraising eyes.

There is something a tad adolescent about Donley’s work, as it can look like the stuff alienated teenagers would paint, if they could paint. (No matter how hard Donley works this Old Master vibe, I always end up thinking of Frank Frazetta.) But Donley makes you feel something, a shiver of disquiet or a tingle of desire. His canvases are beautiful things—the colors seem to glow, and his figures have that elusive spark of life. This time out, Donley’s imagery is darker than ever, with severed heads, somnambulists, people in masks (including a sexed-up, topless Batgirl) and even a philosophical dingo. This time of year, the whole thing has a very Halloween-y feel. That surely wasn’t Donley’s intention, but it’s a happy accident that it worked out that way.

I’m not sure I’d suggest taking in both of these shows in one day. Depending on which you see first, the darkness of Donley’s work could make Holder’s stuff seem too silly, or the candy-sweet charms of Holder’s work could make Donley seem like a big grouch.

 

Andrew Holder’s “Neon Frontier” at the Hibbleton Gallery, 112 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, (714) 441-2857; www.hibbleton.com. Through Sun.; Ray Donley’s “New Works” at the Sarah Bain Gallery, 184 Center St. Promenade, Anaheim, (714) 758-0545; www.sarahbaingallery.com. Through Nov. 2.

 
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