Few painters I can think of these days make work that is truly riveting. Monica Lundy, whose specialty is portraiture, joins that select group. Winner, in 2010, of the Jay De Feo MFA Prize at Mills College, Lundy, 39, demonstrates that bravura painting, despite its near-fossilized status in contemporary art, still has the power to stop you in your tracks.
The Oakland artist focuses her attentions on tough characters and tough places: prisoners, mental hospitals, and, in her most recent series, House of the Strange Women, on male and female prostitutes, painted from SFPD photos taken in the ‘20s and ’30s that she discovered in a book of the same title in a public library. Her works, all on paper, do for painting what Dashiell Hammett did for detective fiction. They bring hard-boiled characters to life without judgment and at a scale that borders on cinematic. Her paintings show the accused staring into police cameras looking sad, angry, dejected, defiant or nonchalant. Lundy depicts them with flamboyant neo-expressionist gestures, none of which have the effect of romanticizing, moralizing or even sympathizing. Admittedly, expressivity and objectivity don’t often appear in the same sentence. Yet Lundy’s paintings deliver both, evincing a just-the-facts-ma’am approach in a realm where facts are scarce. In the absence of biographical details, her subjects are titled only by booking numbers (and in some cases by day jobs), both of which appeared on the original mug shots and are carried over into the paintings. Working with that information, Lundy makes the unwritten stories of their lives explode in a rose-tinged monochromatic palette that seems to fit our collective notion of what the underbelly of Jazz Age San Francisco looked like.
The works on view appear at various sizes, ranging from small- and medium-sized drawings to works that dominate the room. The largest and most powerful stand 80 inches tall, and by that measure alone they command a certain force. Their real power comes from Lundy’s paint handling. Reproductions can’t describe it, so imagine this scenario: Robert Smithson in a pickup spinning donuts in a mud pit with Anselm Kiefer flinging cinders at the resulting splatter and Ralph Steadman applying, beneath these actions, his trademark red-pink washes. This is, admittedly, a hyperbolic mash-up, but it gets at Lundy’s method.
It suggests great spontaneity. I’d suggest the just opposite: that the swirling vortexes of dark pigment that sweep up in their wake all kinds of organic detritus are precisely, choreographed events: virtuosic moves that are rehearsed and strategically deployed.
Take, for example, the way Lundy handles the hair of the doe-eye African-American in the painting titled 0-301. It has the texture of raked tar, and it falls around her face in narrowing ringlets, recalling, in shape, the planets and clouds of Van Gough’s The Starry Night. Pieces of mica, embedded in the painting’s surface form a necklace whose luster stands in marked contrast to those huge dolorous eyes. The face in the show’scenterpiece, 0-3640, brings to mind a young Bette Davis. She greets you at the gallery entrance with an icy snarl and doesn’t back down. Cinders and other bits of grit embedded in the paint suggest a close connection to grime, a pitch-perfect bit of mimesis. Vio. Sec 12, a portrait of a young white male, named after the section of the penal code he was caught violating, carries less visual information, but it’s equally descriptive. Messy circles — possibly thumb imprints — define the brow and nose and run down the cheeks, circling the neck to create a shot-through effect that is offset only slightly by a puckered roseate, mouth, a touch that adds sweetness to an otherwise dissolute visage. It flirts with caricature.
Lundy doesn’t attempt to confer dignity on or rescue from injustice those that circumstance or history may have wrongly maligned. (Rehabilitation doesn’t seem to be a part of her program.) But, having rendered them as eloquently as she has, she’s given these anonymous characters a posthumous life that they (or their jailers) probably never envisioned. And though truth is elusive, you nevertheless feel, in looking at Lundy’s paintings, that you’ve caught a telling glimpse. Or as Hammett once put it: “With what dope I got I think it fills me in pretty well.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
Monica Lundy: "House of the Strange Women" @ Toomey Tourell through November 2, 2013.