High drama is rampant in the paintings of Josh George. Working on panel with an aggressive collage sensibility, George mixes in cloth, bits of paper and wallpaper, patterned fabrics and other assorted materials with his paint to create striking cityscapes and urban canyon views with powerful perspectives, intense color schemes and acute painterly effects. I like to think of them as architectural portraits with more than a little theatricality thrown in.
In his current show at Gallery C, George has paired up his city-based work with a bright series of female nudes in domestic settings, resulting in bath and bedroom interiors reminiscent of the colorfully sweet pastel palette of Bonnard and the masterfully drawn figures of Degas. Markedly different from those artists' luxuriant paint and pastel handling, however, George has perfected an energetic technique in which the layerings of various collage materials are combined with turbid and moody paint shading, bold palette knife slatherings and robust surface modeling. The effect is remarkable; dramatic textures and tension throughout the surface of the panels not only animate the individual works but breathe vigor and a mysteriously spirited allure into the show as a whole.
The artist has acknowledged the clear influence of the Ashcan School of painters—notably Robert Henri, George Bellows and John Sloan. That early 20th-century movement was grounded in realism, often a quite gritty one. For Henri, considered the godfather of the movement, art served but one purpose: "that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time and in their own land."
The Ashcan artists were not ones to sugarcoat, and they unabashedly depicted the harshness of urban life (particularly the poorer areas of New York), which also offered a perfect mix of extreme vitality and reality. As Henri pointedly noted, the "big strong thing can only be the result of big strong seeing." George has taken this approach to heart but has developed his own assiduously imaginative approach, composing his cityscapes from memory, culled from his 10 years of living in New York. He described this improv technique to me as a "tedious meditation on where I have been," though his results strike me as much more limber than his own description would suggest.
The hand of a draftsman is clearly evident in George's larger works, and he also holds among his influences Mary Cassatt (a distant cousin of Robert Henri, though "from the better and he from the worse side of the tracks," as Robert Hughes put it). Cassatt's draftsmanship was itself honed under the tutelage of Degas, so George's work flows through a vein of art historical lineage.
A significant number of both the city and figural works in the show are of diminutive scale—measuring only 6 to 8 inches—and the artist uses them as an opportunity to explore composition and color. Composed of scraps of material left over from the larger works, they have a loose, sketchy luminosity and propinquity to assemblage that verges on total abstraction. George has also set for himself an ongoing technical challenge in many of the small panels by attempting to use, as he says, "color temperature and texture, instead of value, to describe form."
Something else to look for when you go: Take note of George's grand titles, which the gallery operator says have been a hit on their own terms. Prone to descriptions of light, energy and obsessive cleanliness, titles like "Chlorine Chloropicrin Phosgene by Wind Dispersal," "Cold Lettuce Omelet, Cold Night" and "Pollution Makes Pretty Sunsets" capture the artist wresting wit from the verbal, as much as he wrings expression from his paint tubes.