DAX Gallery Gathers Masters and Rookies

Even from outside the glass doors of DAX Gallery's “Undeniable,” it's apparent why the paintings displayed inside make Andrea Harris McGee's “heart race” (quoting the show's press release). Big ideas; artfully positioned larger pieces than we're used to seeing outside of European museums, carefully presented beside smaller beauties; nine artists in total, including mentors, instructors and two upstarts who have just graduated. Inspired by the complex relationships among the group, Harris McGee celebrates their synergy in her first gig as DAX's curator.

Cal State Fullerton professor Rebecca Campbell has two paintings on display, both of them marvelous: Ophelia (2013) is Shakespeare's suicidal child-woman, sinking into a flowing river. Unfazed, her eyes reveal not a shred of panic, as a school of fish swim about her legs in a blue embrace. Dig, a shirtless man digging in the ground, has none of the classical perfection of the drowning woman: the brushstrokes aren't perfect; there are blots and daubs of paint where the other has finely etched details; the musculature here is less realistic, blue and green mixed with pink, red and white; impressionistic streaky blue and red skies overhead. Nearby, Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD) instructor F. Scott Hess' paintings are more frankly narrative: Coyly displayed next to Ophelia, his Pale Horse's nude black woman straddles a panicked equus as lightning crashes about them, her eyes closed, perfectly at peace, despite her vulnerability.

Belt (2001) has two men standing on a roof, the younger one in striped pajamas, and the older one clad in boxers. The young man holds a leather strap, remembering times past and looking at the other as if it's now the old man's turn for a beating. Hess mentee Julio Labra's graphite-on-paper drawings are packed with a storyline as ambiguous as his mentor's, but it's Labra's single painting, Tepid, that's the perfect blend of the fantastic and surreal: a young man sits in a tree fork, playing a drum. As he's about to be immersed in the most sumptuously painted waves you've ever seen, he's looking up to the sky like a musical Saint Sebastian.

There's nothing overtly remarkable about Michael Harnish's oil-on-canvas portrait or his photorealistic flowers, despite their formal aesthetic. They're graceful, but I wanted more takeaway.

Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum's wall-size Old Master paintings instantly transport you to another century, their muted color, chiaroscuro and dark themes collectively recalling Caravaggio, Da Vinci and Rembrandt, with just a sly hint of the fabulous. Maenads references the Bacchae (those murderous, orgiastic witches from the worst season of True Blood, for those of you not current on your mythology), but the seven women sitting nude in a lake all have the same Walking Dead stare, more resembling prisoners of war than women at a bacchanal. At center of the biographical Crossing the Borders is a woman in diaphanous clothing holding a baby, flanked by men carrying modern military weapons. Nerdrum's parents were refugees during World War II, so there's a palpable sense of panic, rush from disaster and fear coinciding with new hope that reeks from this astonishing canvas.

Nerdrum's influence can be seen in the work of two artists he mentored, Luke Hillestad and David Molesky. Molesky's portrait, Lady Lanvik, reminded me of Millet's The Gleaners, even though the pregnant woman featured isn't working and likely wouldn't have to because of her social class. It simply reminded me that the fields behind her have to be tended by someone. Hillestad's gorgeous Gothics also look as if they came straight from Nerdrum's playbook, and while there are similar elements to his mentor's color palate, the artist's figures are more isolated, with loneliness the order of the day, whether it's the pale dead woman being prepared for burial in Severed Wing; his Self Portrait In Paris, with Hillestad blurred and fading into darkness behind a skull on a table; or the luscious Swamp Mamma, his nude subject sitting in murky water, curled into a tree stump and holding a baby, leaving us to wonder whether her body has been dumped there or she's magically risen from the muck to give birth.

LCAD graduates Averi Endow and Corbin Ferguson have little in common with their instructors, striking out in exciting ways that make me hope to see more of their work in the future. Endow focuses on the intimate, but her images (and their titles) feel personal, even confessional: A child sleeping on a couch is called Unemployment; the curled hands of an infant at the forefront of a painting are warm and fleshy, while the rest of its body resembles a chilly corpse in the background of Ape. Ferguson's Untitled Landscape and Blue Sky oils have an entirely different, far more abstract vision. His terrain and firmament are suggested by swaths of rich color and vibrant motion, and unlike many abstracts in which you puzzle over what you're seeing, the deep blues and earth tones are all we need to understand.

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