Portrait of the Art Critics

You'll find a lot of critical cooing over Bradford J. Salamon's "Orange County Tastemakers," at Square Blue Gallery—the pretty, blond-wood garret space that abuts his studio. The Register's Daniella Walsh coos. Laguna Art Museum curator Tyler Stallings coos. And Jamie Wilson coos, but that's her job as curator of Square Blue—a space that's become an occasionally edgy, important asset for local artists eager to show.

But it's hard to separate the critical love for the show from the fact that Bradford has painted very pretty pictures of . . . the critics themselves. They're not quite airbrushed, but they are idealized, softened. It's a very flattering take. Of course, the county is singularly blessed in the attractiveness of its critics and its print media in general, but only compared to the critics and reporters in other places. (The fact that we live in California automatically makes us better looking than the shlubs in Chicago.) We're not that gorgeous.

Bradford (when he was cranking out the perfectly drafted graphite portraits of James Dean, John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe, he was known by just the one name) is an extremely talented painter, and the likenesses in the exhibit (with the exception of BC Space Gallery's Mark Chamberlain, whom I wouldn't recognize but for the title and the hat) are spot-on. They're also interestingly composed and arted-up so they're not just cheesecake shots. Critic Roberta Carasso, for instance, looks both fierce and suspicious of the attention she's receiving as she sits in an almost tiger-striped rocking chair. Her features are strong and mannish, her short gray hair is tousled. Bradford doesn't erase the deep grooves that run from her mouth to her nose. But the most beautiful part of the painting is her hand, resting strong and wide on the arm of the chair. It could almost be a tiger's paw.

I absolutely believe that Bradford has taken on this project with good intentions: to portray those (Stallings calls them the cognoscenti) who are essential to the local art scene but who get very little in the way of props. However, it would be easy for the cynical to write the whole thing off as self-serving self-promotion. Disturbingly, the prettiest pictures in the exhibit belong to those subjects who can help Bradford the most. Irene Hofmann, the curator of contemporary art at the Orange County Museum of Art, is a stylish (even kittenish) beauty painted in a tuxedo shirt and red lipstick, whimsically twirling a black umbrella. Writing about the experience of posing for him, Hofmann cites his "meticulous preparation" and "intellectual rigor" and compares him to Romaine Brooks. I'm not suggesting in any way that she doesn't believe that to be true. But look who's been brought to Hofmann's attention.

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Bradford's portraits are wonderfully done and nicely varied. The men are often painted with big, masculine brushstrokes slashing through heavy, masculine oil. Mike McGee, the art honcho at Cal State Fullerton, is painted in extreme close-up in shades of avocado, with just one large white slash for his nose. Art writer Doree Dunlap, on the other hand, is portrayed as precisely as she chooses her words, in delicate charcoal and gentle light. The Register's Walsh is painted blowsy and soft and windswept. The ocher of the background and her off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, combined with her timeless, hazy gaze, could be inside a saloon in a Frederic Remington Western scene. (And for added art-world incest, I could swear her pretty choker comes from OCMA's gift shop.)

All his works are apropos. Artist and OCMA employee Nora Novak, a former model, is drawn in ink in what looks like a fashion designer's sketch—her already six-foot length is elongated even more, her sharp cheekbones are even sharper. This is the way Novak should always be painted—and it's reminiscent of her own glamour-cat work, as well.

I can't fault the critics, collectors and curators who've sat for Bradford and love the results. Nor am I a big believer in the separation of church and state, as the Times' old art critic Cathy Curtis was. Curtis wouldn't buy art, though she longed to, because it might lead her astray from ironclad impartiality. I sit for any artist whose work I really love—and that's included, so far, Don Bachardy, Stephen Douglas, Jorg Dubin and Skeith DeWine. Some have been flattering, and some have made me look ill and potato-nosed. I continue to review their work when it's in town—but I recuse myself when the work in question depicts me. Call it a small (and uncharacteristic) nod toward modesty and good taste.

Bradford J. Salamon shows "Orange County Tastemakers" at Square Blue Gallery, 355 Old Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 548-1101. Open Thurs.-Sun., Noon-6 p.m., and Fri., 5-8 p.m. Thru June 15.

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