Echoes of the Surreal | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Echoes of the Surreal

A Raleigh painter influenced by Salvador Dal exhibits at Lee Hansley Gallery; Que Pasa sponsors work by Spanish artists


George Bireline offers a lesson, of sorts, in modern painting styles with the collection of his work now on view at Lee Hansley Gallery in Raleigh. Featuring work from the 1960s to paintings completed just this year, the show transitions smoothly from the vibrant color fields that have been emblematic of Bireline's work since his days as a professor at N.C. State University's School of Design, beginning in the 1950s; to the surrealistic manipulations of depth perception in "The History Lesson" (1993); to the socially conscious realism of "Crush" (2002). Although the Lee Hansley Gallery show is not a complete retrospective, the paintings here represent enough of a sampling to translate Bireline's intelligence, sincerity and, at times, droll sense of humor.

"The History Lesson" is a dynamic take on perception that also succeeds as a political statement. Among the paintings in this show, it best exemplifies Bireline's far-reaching artistic abilities, and so is worth contemplating at length. In this painting, he explores the theme of the degradation of nature, the concept of painting-as-window, and the ability of a painting to create the illusion of multidimensionality.

"The History Lesson" depicts a wall in the center of which is located an arched doorway. On either side of the doorway are two images made to appear as though they're individual works on paper tacked to the wall. The image on the left is a great mound of mauve dirt scored with ridges like those of hardened lava, or of the kind caused by the erosion of unpacked dirt. Judging from what is painted over this image--a tiny blue-gray fragment resembling a treaded piece of tire suspended from a string (a clear reference to Dalí's "Madonna")--the mound may allude to garbage buried in a landfill.

On the right, under a toxic orange and lavender sky, naked trees stand scattered throughout a polluted wetland. An old aluminum can key tacked to the center of the image disrupts this landscape and calls attention to the discarded cans littering the swamp. In the foreground two stones stand like monuments, one of which has been painted with the black and white diagonals of railroad crossing guards.

Through the doorway a television sits on a red pedestal, its screen facing toward an empty road stretching to a distant overpass. In the foreground of this image, the asphalt appears cracked as though by an earthquake. As with the other two images, the viewer is given hints that these are not landscapes seen through a window; the doorway does not lead outside. Following the television's power cord, you find it is plugged into the grass on the side of the road, and instantly the landscape becomes a wall mural, one of three paintings within the larger whole.

In the sky above the roadway is a yellow scrap of paper that looks as if it has been affixed to the painting by masking tape. On the paper is a small helicopter depicted at the size it would have to be to create the illusion of distance in the painting. While the helicopter creates the perception of distance, the tape, seemingly affixing it to the canvas, and the yellow scrap of paper, are sized according to foreground dimensions, creating a conflict in perspective. It's on this yellow scrap the artist has chosen to add his signature. Near the center of the canvas, his name and the date remain, inconspicuous, and protected by illusion.

The contemplative skill and refined craftsmanship of works such as "The History Lesson" make Bireline one of North Carolina's greatest painters (whose work has been collected in the Hirshhorn Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Asheville Art Museum, the Fayetteville Museum of Art, the Mint Museum of Art, the Duke University Museum of Art, and at North Carolina State University). Though not every painting is as involved as "The History Lesson" (a few of his latest color fields have been completed with a degree of carelessness), the current showing of Bireline's work at Lee Hansley Gallery is both thought-provoking and visually stunning.

Aficionados of Latin, South American and Cuban painting are in for a treat at the Raleigh offices of Que Pasa. Publisher Federico Van Gelderen has put together a fantastic exhibition featuring work by José Bedia, Claudio Gallina and Victor Rodriguez, among others. Van Gelderen plans to continue the rotation of Hispanic art in his offices in hopes of raising awareness of Hispanic culture in the Piedmont community. The paintings are hung on every vacant wall space at the newspaper, and their professional quality--this is not office art--imparts a refined atmosphere to the somewhat cramped office.

"Antes y Déspues," a diptych by Mexican artist Victor Rodriguez, depicts the profile of a woman before and after a dramatic alteration. In the profile on the left, the woman stares stone-faced at a focal point off the canvas. The descent from her eyebrow to her nose stops short at a cube, which covers her nose and partly obscures her face. In the sister canvas on the right, the cube is absent, revealing a perfect nose the artist has illuminated with rays of gleaming white light bouncing off the subject's face. Unencumbered by her defect, the subject's eyes are brighter and her lips are curved upward at the corners into a slight smile. These paintings owe much in their style to the photo-realism of Gerhard Richter, but rather than using the German painter's standard gray scale, Rodriguez paints his subject in vibrant tones of orange and yellow, highlighting themes of fashion, cosmetology and superfluity.

Sharing the conference room with Rodriguez's work is a painting by Cuban artist José Bedia. "Ulitimas Vistas de la Torré" offers three foreign perspectives of the attack on the World Trade Center. Rising in the center of the canvas is a stone pillar with a dog's head at its summit. Bedia has wrought the pillar with cracks and further foreshadowed its fall by smearing the space around it with drops of pale-toned paint serving to interrupt the gray monotone of the canvas. Three horned characters, in poses representing different attitudes toward the tragedy occurring in their midst, stand in the periphery. One kneels at a distance snapping a photograph, another leans nonchalantly smoking a cigarette against the doomed structure, while the third, in timid deliberateness, reaches out to lay a hand on the pillar.

Delving into themes from education to gender roles and pornography, the paintings of Argentinian Claudio Gallina often offer panoramic views, bringing together several artistic and social statements within the frame of single painting. In the foreground of "La Modelo," a nude woman stands vulnerably, arms above her head, while a clothed man adjusts something at her feet. In the cavernous studio behind them, awash in musty tones of brown, lie an overturned bed, a couch, a chair, a few chalkboards (a recurrent image in Gallina's work) and a stepladder. The environment is lifeless, and by placing the two human subjects center foreground, yet not removing them in tone from the dark space behind them, Gallina suggests that the objective nature of the artist/subject relationship is also lifeless. His paintings, at the same time intricate and comprehensive, are thoroughly engaging.

Visitors are welcome to drop by during business hours Monday though Friday to view the work. Que Pasa is located on the first floor of the First Union building in Raleigh at 150 Fayetteville Street Mall. Call 645-1680 for details. EndBlock

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