Rogue Buddha is not your typical art gallery. It’s got something like a New Orleans vibe to it, lived in and alive in its own right. On the day I went to check out Deep Cuts, a show of new paintings by Matt Franzen and Jonny Kelson, both artists were sitting out front in camping chairs, smoking cigarettes and watching the world go by on a sunny afternoon. Pulling open the ratty old screen door to enter, it’s more like walking into a friend’s house than a contemporary art space — especially if that friend collects oil paintings and dabbles in the occult. The gallery doesn’t mind asserting itself as a space, with wrought-iron accents, Addams family furniture, and walls painted a rusty vermilion instead of the usual antiseptic white. In the back room on permanent display are wild and gloomy paintings and sculptures, many by gallery owner Nicholas Harper.
Not all artwork would make sense here, but Deep Cuts fits perfectly. The show is a collection of dark, brooding oil paintings, framed in ornate black and gold and clearly referencing Baroque portraiture and Romantic landscape painting. The two artists have been friends since the ‘90s and managed to create two distinct but incredibly cohesive bodies of work over the past year for this exhibition. If you didn’t know any better, you might think it was a solo show. Both are figurative painters with great technical skills, both are drawing from old source material and even older painting traditions, and both do it all with a devious smirk. The work is heavy and gothic, rife with skeletons and murders, nuns and saints, but some sly humor sneaks in as well.
Matt Franzen, Stranglehold, oil on panel
Drawing inspiration from 19th century Romantics, Franzen presents some breathtaking vistas here, recreating all the majesty of the purple mountains, billowing clouds, and placid pools of the Hudson River School painters. But out in front of these landscapes, dominating the compositions, are characters in black and white acting out moments of agony and menace. Janet Leigh’s Psycho shower scream in one of them is the give-away that these are all old stars of the silver screen, villains and victims from classic film noir.
There is an obvious humor in drowning out the cloying idealism of Romantic grandeur with the desaturated image of men fighting to the death, and a few of the paintings are played for laughs. But, for the most part, the work is not overly campy; there is a real kind of sadness in some of these pieces. Maybe this is my unhealthy news habit talking, but it seems that Franzen is using these old images to speak to our current moment. Make America Great Again comes to mind: that odious slogan (and the ruin of all red baseball caps from here on out) is in part a rebranding of Manifest Destiny, the bloody philosophy of American entitlement. MAGA is — if I’m hearing the dog whistles correctly — about nostalgia for a time when fortune favored the bold, the violent, and the reckless. When men were men, you might say (white men, that is; men of color are mere “boys” in this wretched memory). You know, the good old days, when the world was as black-and-white as its cinema (and its water fountains). Add to that the notion that environmental regulations are worthless roadblocks to free enterprise, and you might start to see the connection to Franzen’s work, how these paintings are wryly spelling out doom for man and nature alike. Even standing outdoors underneath a rainbow, one gun-toting white man is still shrouded in the shadow of Venetian blinds. Fitting.
Jonny Kelson, Strange Devotion, oil on canvas
Where Franzen’s paintings get their darkness from noir, Kelson’s sources are even older and more macabre. Working with symbols from religious art and folklore traditions, Kelson’s paintings are much darker than Franzen’s, more filled with shadow and dread. Using the old Baroque style of tenebrism — highly contrasted compositions of light and dark used by the likes of Caravaggio and Rembrandt — Kelson creates strange narrative moments with even stranger characters. In one painting, a group of nuns huddles around a flame, one sporting a moustache and shit-brown teeth, another with the face of a swirly-eyed ghost. Another piece shows a demonic Little Red Riding Hood in cahoots not with a wolf but a giant bat; further into the show is a similar portrait of a woman in red holding both an apple and a serpent. Biblical references here seem more atmospheric than illustrative, not so much teaching us lessons or telling us stories as setting the mood.
Where Janet Leigh was the tell for Franzen’s source material, with Kelson it’s local noise rock celebrity Shannon Selberg of The Cows, here painted as a Renaissance luminary holding aloft his trusty bugle. Kelson often uses his friends as models for these dramatic scenes (he once painted Har Mar Superstar and a beheaded Macaulay Culkin as David and Goliath), and therein lies the heart and humor in the work. It’s gothic and morbid, and some of it is just plain esoteric (I’m looking at you, demonic deer portrait), but there’s an undeniable respect he pays his subjects. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with some good old-fashioned weirdness, especially these days. After all, ’tis the season.
Jonny Kelson, Remember the End (detail), oil on panel
Deep Cuts is on view at Rogue Buddha until November 11th. Gallery hours are Wed - Sat, 3-8pm, or by appointment. Visit roguebuddha.com for more info.