The American Century

Art openings are great, except when the actual real live artists are there painting. Then it gets weird. Do you ask a question? Do you talk at all? So difficult, even when it's a nice, comfortable love fest of an opening, like the recent debut of "Raw: Undiscovered Talent" at Space on Spurgeon, which had two of the three artists featured, Chrystal Romero and Liza Coggins, upstairs (it's a loft) painting away at easels. It was painful seeing Coggins dab a little white onto the blue of a swimming pool, then move it around with a fingertip—like watching me write. She seemed perfectly fine with it, unlike Romero.

"I've never really painted with a crowd before," said Romero, eying her tubes of acrylic as visitors clumped up and down the metal staircase. "I have to tune it out, I guess." She was the neophyte—one of gallery owner JoAnne Artman's recent discoveries—but if Romero hadn't confessed to being self-taught, and to being inspired to abandon realism for a broken mirror perspective by a single show of German artists at the Tate Modern in London, you wouldn't have known. It seemed like she'd been doing this for years, instead of 18 months.

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"Raw" is unashamedly fixated on 20th century America, from its self-satisfied Great Society sprawl to the hollowed-out ghastliness we officially found at the end of World War II. Coggins and painter Dominic Dettore focused on the "We're a happy family" side of it. Dettore delivered a handful of pastel-painted vignettes of crew-cut youngsters, Nabisco cookie logos, vintage Jags and Corvettes and, through it all, a smiling lady in cat-eye sunglasses who was obviously the mom: his late mother, who'd inspired the series. It was someone's childhood remembered wholesale—but how do you hate on someone's dead mom? Like this: she was the best part. His people were great: classic, normal, Rockwell folks, but it descended from there to the National Biscuit Company trademark.

Coggins' painstakingly-constructed views of keglers, barflies and tennis shoes gave us a realist twist on what they're calling pop surrealism. Her 4:30 at the Clock was a marvel of stripedy shadows, saddle shoes and khaki-clad folks seen from the waists down, comparing milkshakes in stainless steel chairs. It could have been a scene from any of Southern California's once-proud chain of Clock drive-ins, but Coggins is from Dublin and she said this was a bar where they'd all hang out after art school—making those beer milkshakes. She also said 4:30 is 10 minutes after 4:20—a fun time, day or night, but way too sunny for a bar. Her brightness and colors worked much better in Runners, a snapshot view of people's feet in sneakers—richly-hued Converse so shiny and saturated they were like Popsicles for feet.

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The least-experienced of the lot, Romero in many ways delivered some of the most satisfying works of the show—a series of fractured views of broken-faced people who looked the way we all sometimes feel. Collapsed and sad, big-eyed and hollow, they'd been through a war inside. They reminded me, oddly, of Art Deco-era painter Tamara de Lempicka's work—strange, because her skill with shadows and her florid colors are much closer to Coggins' style. Romero's series, particularly her nightclub scene, Faces, seen from behind the bar, rendered these people as they really were: hard, cold and drawn, not all fat and happy like de Lempicka would have done it—unless she'd spent World War II in Europe. Romero's grimmest view was Grit, the face of a man working himself up into a swivet over something. But upstairs, near where the artist got to work rendering a fat man holding a bowl of soup, her Green was equally dire. In it, a scary, happy woman sat unaware, blurting out her story on a bus bench to a group of uncomfortable men gathered around. It was almost more than they could handle, and you could see they wanted to run away—but they just couldn't do it.



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