I would like to put to death the use of the term “low brow.” If only I had that kind of power. It’s a phrase not only overused but one, much like “No Wave,” which has no real meaning and, more often than not, does a disservice to that which it is meant to describe. It’s come to represent too broad a spectrum. It’s too all-encompassing. Not to mention that it’s a pretty revolting way to address an artist’s work, especially an artist like Nicola Verlato. So when I hear Verlato talk about leaving his native Verona because he felt more connected to the low brow art that was thriving here in the states, it’s a bit of a surprise.
Verlato’s exhibit “Zero Gravity” opened at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery alongside Vonn Sumner’s “This Makes Sense” Saturday, in the smartest pairing I’ve seen all year. In grand tradition, both artists studied under brilliant tutelage, Verlato under Fra Terenzio, and Vonn Sumner under Wayne Thiebaud.
With surgical precision, Verlato wields his brush, heavy from the weight of Italy’s art history, to render twisting bodies, limbs aloft, thrown violently airborne under mysterious circumstances. Possessions swirl around them–pills, make-up, automatic weapons, and um…popcorn–yet offer few clues as to the cause of the chaos. Sure, a car crash has ensued, but what triggered it? Where were they going? What were they up to? Frozen, as they are, in a moment, Verlato sets up the scene for the viewer to mentally rewind the narrative. How this all plays out becomes less intriguing than how we got here in the first place.
How Verlato himself gets there is complicated, and maybe you’re better left in the dark. I’m reminded of similar mid-air body contortions produced by Robert Longo in the eighties, and how when I discovered he achieved that by throwing tennis balls at his friends, then that was all I could see in the work. Nicola Verlato clearly wants you to know, at least in part, how the rabbit gets out of the hat, as there are several large preliminary studies in the show. These serve to illustrate not only how Verlato achieves such hyper-realism, but how deeply rooted in the Classical Italian tradition of painting his apocalyptic Western scenarios are. Caravaggio would have loved this guy.
Vonn Sumner is an inspired choice to pair with Verlato. It provides the perfect contrast. Von Sumner paints disquieting portraits of figures partially covered by masks, and seemingly caught in a moment of personal upheaval. The masks are modified to suggest individuality and/or to cast devilish shadows on the wall. The figures alternately have one or more of their senses diminished by the fabric covering, suggesting conversations unheard, truths unseen, secrets untold. It’s all deeply psychological, and very unsettling. Some of his characters are just barely keeping their heads above water, some are marching right out frame, and others appear to be in caught in the harsh moment of a difficult conversation when all parties fall silent. They are all unwaveringly contemplative. I don’t know what to make of the fact that they also all appear to be male, but if you told me that more men should be in psychotherapy, you wouldn’t get an argument from me.
The techniques Vonn Sumner employs to depict these existential dramas have linear ties to Edward Hopper, and Thomas Hart Benton. Soft curves, and light colors cushioning the blow of harsh content and dark thought. In all but one of these the paint is applied so thinly that the surface has virtually no texture. There is also a muted haze over it all that I assume is achieved with a finely transparent wash of linseed oil and grey. Where Verlato’s freeze-frames still ring with a metallic clang, there’s a kind of hush all over Vonn Sumner’s world.
Over the years I’ve watched the Merry Karnowsky Gallery grow by leaps and bounds. They are swinging for the fences. This show is one of the best things they have ever done. It runs through September 1, 2012.Nicola Verlato: “Zero Gravity” Vonn Sumner: “This Makes Sense” Aug. 11 – Sept. 1, 2012 Merry Karnowsky Gallery 170 S. La Brea Avenue Los Angeles, CA. 90036 323-933-4408 Tues.–Sat. 12 p.m.-6 p.m.
Text and photos by Keith Ross Dugas