Aint That America

Photo by Jack GouldRick Monzon's America is as soft-focus and pleasantly blurry as Angelyne the Billboard Queen's ever-gauzier portraits. Hell, they don't even take pictures of her anymore; now the omnipresent pinup girl is an illustration!

Like that scary old hag, Monzon's portraits of suburban houses seem innocuous enough, but there's the slightest whiff of sinisterness. Unlike with Ange (I like to call her “Ange”), there is no sense of decay or rot; but as with Ange, there is also no soul. That's the trade-off in your typical Faustian bargain.

Monzon's pretty pink houses are unpeopled. They are husks only—and if there are people inside, they stay inside, hidden away from the dangers of the big bad city. And hidden away from civilization itself.

Don't get me wrong. Monzon's houses are darling. They're Silver Lake split-levels and others from parts unknown. They're hip and gleaming and painted tasty candy colors never seen in our beige county. And like images of an aging screen star, they're as fuzzy as if Monzon were painting with a Vaseline-smeared brush.

Monzon is showing for Diane Nelson Fine Art's fifth-anniversary show. Like Nelson's other shows, this one is neither challenging nor abrupt. Nelson is not in the business of alienating rich collectors. But, also like almost all of Nelson's shows, Monzon's paintings are exquisitely constructed and really fine works to have in one's home. Sheath your claws, kitties; that wasn't a dig.*

Monzon probably doesn't even realize he's painting a perfect ghost-town upper-middle-class suburbia. He probably just thinks he's painting houses and architecture that won't offend anybody and will make great piles of lovely money. He probably thinks his canvases are happy, especially since he incorporates a lot of violet and teal.

But they're not. Nelson likes eerily unpeopled landscapes, from Ray Turner's bullet trains speeding through post-apocalyptic deserts to his fifth-circle-of-hell smog descending over cities built for giants, none of whom are ever in evidence. It's a little bit edgy, in that very polished, 45-year-old sense.** And it's designed—certainly by Nelson, if not Monzon—to appeal to some dystopic sensibility in the rich, as if things without people were the perfect expression of the way life ought to be.

Monzon's paintings have deceptively happy fuchsia skies. There are a couple of rich, supermodern mansions with fine, sexy lines. There are stilt houses wobbling above golden fields. It's very comfortable and very pleased with itself. But there are no cars, and there are no bodies. It's as empty a place as Los Angeles itself, where your greatest contact with people is seeing them inch past you on the 101. Perhaps in a quarter mile you'll inch past them, and you'll remember that time 10 minutes ago when first you “met.”

We Orange Countians don't have it much better. You might know your immediate neighbors. Or you might not. You definitely know most of the people at work. But once you drive home, you might as well be cloistered in Tibet.

In the back of Nelson's gallery, Jerry Wayne Downs shows his “American Icons.” The first one you see has its “Diner” sign flashing, and for a few moments, it's natural to think the show is going to be a clone of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, later adapted to reflect the pathetically dead faces of Marilyn, Jimmy Dean and Elvis. But the American Icons aren't our vividly self-destructive idols. They're buildings. And—like Monzon's houses—they're lonely, too. There are isolated farmhouses, brick buildings that look like banks sitting on lone, undeveloped stretches of street that flow unbroken to the horizon. This is Omega Man or On the Beach in paint. There is great natural and even architectural beauty, and there is an imminent End. There are dappled skies and mackerel clouds; there are faded, clear-washed blues as flat as Hockneys. And the buildings—their bodies sad and squat and completely anthropomorphized —are as flat and fake as Wild Wild West towns at Universal Studios. The levels of simulacrum, like a dream within a dream, are staggering. Hooray!

* I like paintings that look good in people's homes. In fact, I'm the happy owner of quite a few (though none of Nelson's, of course; she's for folks with stock options). Former Los Angeles Times art critic Cathy Curtis doesn't collect art; she thinks it's a conflict of interest. I love conflicts of interest, especially when they're in the form of artists giving me free paintings in blatant attempts at bribery. But I'm pretty sure that's not the point!

** But what? Twentysomethings have a lock on edgy? If I were 45 and some stupid Xer said that, I would laugh and laugh, just like today I would laugh at any 14-year-old who thought her generation invented shrieking loudly, sure that all the other coffeehouse patrons must envy the joy and giddiness evinced by her voluminous decibels.

rick monzon and jerry wayne show their works at Diane Nelson Fine Art, 435 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2440; Through July 30.

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