Joe Forkan's 'The Lebowski Cycle' Doesn't Abide
The culty goodness of the Coen Brothers' 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, escapes me. A comic ode to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, with its femme fatales, wheelchair-bound rich guys and convoluted plot twists that are never completely resolved, the cast is uniformly good (especially John Goodman's loose-cannon Vietnam vet), the dialogue laugh-out-loud witty, and there are several unique set pieces. The narrative rambles and sputters, however, and the characters seem more like a handful of quirks than people with motivations, the half-baked attempt at Zen-like, reeking of pot smoke . . . I can only assume that is the main reason for its popularity.
If, however, you love the movie, visit artist Joe Forkan's "The Lebowski Cycle" at the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, and you'll be treated to an entire gallery of oil paintings inspired by the film. Forkan captured still images from it, all of them easily identifiable (even if you haven't seen the movie for many years), and then painted the scenes on large linen or wood canvases. Walter, the Dude and Donny drinking and arguing at the bowling alley; the Dude's fantasy with Maude Lebowski dressed as a Valkyrie and the Busby Berkeley-esque chorus girls wearing bowling-pin headdresses; Maude, after sex, lying under the sheets, hugging her legs to her chest, trying to conceive; Jesus the pervert standing in a bowling alley in his purple jumpsuit; Walter and the Dude hugging on the beach near a coffee can of Donny's ashes; Uli the Nihilist lying on an inflatable raft in a pool, an empty bottle of booze floating nearby.
What elevates this from an exhibition of movie-geek fan art—besides the fact that Forkan's technique is very, very solid—is the artist's naming of his work after other, more famous paintings. Aided by curator Andrea Harris-McGee's posted images of the namesake works by Caravaggio, David, Manet, etc. next to Forkan's work, we're asked to compare and contrast the dueling narratives of the two images. How are they the same? How are they different? How do they comment on each other? Do they?
As an intellectual exercise, you can free-associate a myriad connections between just about anything—whether the connection really belongs there or not—and therein lies the problem. Forkan has isolated moments from a film narrative that isn't really much of a narrative, gathered together classic works that have only the slimmest of connections to his work, and then spends the rest of the time shoe-horning the concept to make it work. Like a glass slipper on the foot of the ugly stepsister, it's an awkward fit.
Take, for example, the aforementioned image of Uli in the pool; it is titled The Death of Marat (after David), inspired by Death of Marat by French painter (and propagandist) Jacques-Louis David's painting of the infamous French Revolutionary assassinated in his bathtub. While both pictures involve murderous ideologues, bad philosophy and some water, the cleverness of those similarities subsides quickly because there's nothing beyond that. Forkan's Maude in bed is titled Venus and hustled together with images of Manet's painting of a prostitute, Olympia (which in turn was inspired by Titian's Venus of Urbino). Maude and Olympia are both strong, take-no-prisoners women, but since Maude is fully covered and isn't a prostitute, I'm not seeing the connection, unless, like Manet to his predecessor, Forkan is just flipping his artistic forebears a wry finger.
Even if we go with the idea that Forkan is suggesting Maude's a goddess—Maude as Venus or as a Valkyrie in the colossally awesome The Raft of the Medusa (after Géricault)—that still doesn't work when placed next to Géricault's original painting of shipwreck and class struggle. Factor in that a number of the classic paintings are religious in nature—The Agony In the Garden, Ecce Homo, Deposition From the Cross, The Taking of Christ—that a pothead slacker getting his ass handed to him by hippie-hating Malibu cops seems kind of facile in comparison, even if you don't buy into all that religious mythology.
In the end, the one painting that really had a voice of its own was Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (after Friedrich). In it, the whited-out figure of the Dude stands in a parking lot, gazing out at a gray sea of rusted, wrecked cars, looking for his junker. It's the only picture in the exhibition that isn't a still from the film and involves the artist appropriating the image, and then working his artistic vision on it, making it something completely different. Harris-McGee told me it was the most autobiographical of the artist's paintings, and its inspiration—Friedrich's well-tailored man staring out at craggy, treacherous mountain peaks bathed in fog—suggests the possible terrors ahead and the decisive moment we take to press on through adversity. If there were more of that kind of work present in "The Lebowski Cycle," maybe then I would also believe that the Dude does, indeed, abide.
This review appeared in print as "This Dude Doesn't Abide: 'The Lebowski Cycle' presents pastiches of classical paintings and the Coen Brothers' classic film, to uneven results."
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