Impending Nuclear Doom?

By Nathan RohlanderSure, it's a Code Yellow kind of week—no doubt soon to be upgraded to puce, or whatever the next hue might be on Tom Ridge's palette of terror. I mean, really! Now there are threats of armed scuba divers?

Luckily for us, there's always something light and fluffy with which to distract ourselves.

Nathan Rohlander, a newcomer to the gallery scene, does well with frivolous. The best of his series, showing at Diane Nelson Fine Art through June 2, shows pretty women's feet in yellow thongs, toenails painted and ready for your delectation. Men's dress shoes also do well here, whether pausing at a gate before some thickly scumbled gravel, or all on their lonesome. It's not the first time footwear has been fussed over. That goes back to ancient China, not to mention the Grimm Brothers' Aschenputtel (Cinderella).

Locally, Eleanor Antin's photos of boots marching illustrated both whimsy and threat. Rohlander takes that a bit farther; since the shoes are clearly worn by people rather than locomoting along all by themselves, we should be able to visualize the person at the top of those feet from the one discrete bit of information we're given. But it's not really possible; there are too few varieties. Sure, there's a bizarre pair of limbs in pink pumps and legwarmers. And there's a pair of feet in black cloggy sandals that the gallerina said reminded her of Payless, and she was totally right. But there's no grimy, gnarled bare feet, or men's feet in sandals and socks, or feet in winter in $300, open-toed strappy stilettos. So rather than uncovering anything about Rohlander's subjects by their feet, we could just look at the paintings and say, “Oh! That's so cute.”

In fact, it's when Rohlander seeks to add gravitas to his series that he seems most callow. These are paintings of shoes. Let's not muck about with depth, por favor. Case in point? A painting of a fireman's rubber boots parked under an engine is titled Ready. It might as well be titled Let's Roll. I did like the horse hooves clomping down the street, though, all nasty and matted and ungroomed.

Santa Barbara-based Eric Zener gets the lion's share of the gallery. His flattish, columnar divers, usually women, usually in old-fashioned bathing dresses and always in swim caps, will be familiar to art-mag readers. They're charming; they seem to operate outside time, jackknifing against backgrounds of Hockney-colored skies. The women are featureless, identical but for the color of their suits and bathing caps. Arms have long, Pilates-like muscles; legs are geometric. Really, they're very nice, and I don't mean to sound condescending by saying so. The problem is that these have become Zener's calling card, so he doesn't step beyond them. They are within his comfortable comfort zone; they are his velvet coffin. After seeing several, you get bored. You wish Zener would try something new (the same wish goes, of course, for Rohlander, whose shoes seem gimmicky after just a couple of canvases; but Rohlander is a beginner, so we'll cut him more slack).

Only one of Zener's paintings, Motel Swim, stretches the narrative. In that one, a turquoise pool is surrounded by night black as tar. There are no figures; like Rohlander, Zener shows the occupants by what they wear. A tux and a red evening gown are discarded on lounge chairs. Drinks are dropped, as are panties. It's very like F. Scott Hess' series “Book of Hours,” in which soon-to-be lovers gaze drunkenly at one another, surrounded by the remains of their room service feast. It has a little of Sandow Birk's velvet-black LA night scenes, too, but without the gangbangers holding up 7-Elevens. Zener's take is fun; I wish there were more of it in the show.

It's looking at his catalog that does the most damage. Most show swimmers kicking and bubbling under green waters—they're fine, the same type of thing he does with the divers. But there, in the middle, are examples of Zener's other work, the kind he hasn't made his trademark. And they're stunning. Some show girls in a meadow (okay, it sounds sick, but it's bucolic without being schmaltzy; in practice, it's edgy, with the lines of an adult comic book—er, “graphic novel”); others show rough-stroked men with Modigliani-long noses. All of them are gorgeous, and none are Xerox copies of one another, taking the same, saleable idea and producing No. 67 in a series of 4,000.

Nathan Rohlander and Eric Zener at Diane Nelson Fine Art, 435 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2440. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through June 2.

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