There's neither an obvious back nor a front door to the ARTery, the Lab's three-shipping-container art gallery (which shares its name with several unrelated Arterys around the nation). But you should definitely enter Mark Cummings' new show "Il Classico—In the Tradition of the Masters" through what seems to be the back door, nearest Zipangu. It begins with some of Cummings' most florid oils, and you see immediately what he means. The rest is just repetition—beautiful, painstaking, meticulous repetition: not bad at all, seasoned with nekkidity as it is.
The worst thing about this show is its title, which—like referring to yourself in the third person—seems a little presumptuous of anyone not named Michelangelo. (And that's all of us.) But Cummings is justifiably proud of having recently finished studying classical drawing and painting at the Angel Academy of Art, in Florence—one of a very few places where they learn you to paint like the masters. His admiration for people like John Singer Sargent and Frans Hals is clear—but how hard is it to think up a good, original title for your show? Impossible.
It gets better from there, even if it begins as a series of still-lifes. Like the charcoal drawings and studies that come later, Cummings painted these in school, but it's hardly apparent. His L'Aranci ed il Vase Bello,a glossy orange on a branch set against a greeny-blue vase, is too simplistic for our modern high-def plasma TV minds—but that makes it and the show great. There's nothing here you've seen recently—or not like this. The sheen, the glaze over his oils is dead-on; they're about that much out of focus, as they should be (the precursor to Vaseline on the lens)—and no one's ever seen an orange or a vase that luscious. The fruit is waxed within an inch of its life, and the porcelain shines like the vintage. Which it is (Long Beach antique swap meet), but Cummings says there's a huge chip out of the other side of the rim. This is great news; it deflates his considerable ambition, bringing the show back to earth. We all know, or we think we know, that DaVinci never had to use a chipped vase for a model. (He had a great dental plan, too.)
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But back to the niceness; "Classico" is notable for its lack of snark, and it's about time. Not every show has to be about irony, though lately almost every one has been. It even smells good, thanks to the mineral spirits in oil-based paint; and the excellent technique continues in such charcoal drawings as Tina,one of Cummings' nudes. The woman in question stands partly in profile, looking away. Her neck and stomach are amazing, their muscles all right where they should be. Tina eats three meals a day, she never drinks light beer, and she doesn't spend any longer than necessary at the gym—so she looks like a real, live woman, unlike Nicole Richie.
Then, at last, you reach another charcoal—Cast of Abraham Lincoln,and the significance of what you're seeing hits you. It's a cast drawing of the bust of a short-haired Lincoln, with the hollowed cheeks and thousand-yard stare you'd expect—but it's absolutely serious. And the art world—or at least Juxtapoz nation—hasn't taken Lincoln for reals since Mark Ryden ironicized him 10 years ago, along with Colonel Sanders, Christina Ricci and Rushton's catalog of toy stuffed animals. Not that Lincoln's so easy on the eyes—unlike Christina Ricci or Tina—but the idea that we still take things seriously is something to consider. And reconsider.
Until you reach the show's end, and one of its final oils: In the Cave, whence Cummings' grand scheme becomes transparent. He plans on applying old-world techniques to modern topics, and this shows how it will be done. Your chief clue is one of those magnifying jigs a jeweler or machinist might use; it is center-canvas, the joker from a deck of cards clamped in place and partially magnified. The Cave in question is in fact the Batcave; those shadows behind—every bit as indistinct as that vase was earlier—are actually cast by Batman's mask and cape. And that slender volume of prose next to the magnifier—the one whose title you can't quite read—is Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. As a direction forward, it's laid on a bit heavy; having been rehabilitated by Tim Burton, and again by Christopher Nolan, Batman is not quite the rake he was in 1986. But we forgive him—Cummings; Batman needs to grow a sense of humor—for his technique. It is again quite excellent, making you forget that they don't paint like this all the time, until your cell phone goes off.
IL CLASSICO—IN THE TRADITION OF THE MASTERS, AT THE ARTERY, THE LAB, 2930 BRISTOL ST., COSTA MESA, (714) 966-6660, WWW.THELAB.COM, WWW.MCORIGINALS.COM. CALL FOR HOURS. THROUGH JAN. 14. FREE.