Toy Stories:  “Altered States” at Miller Gallery

By Keith Banner

The paintings in “Altered States:  New Paintings by Rob Jefferson and Jonathan Queen” (currently up on the walls at Miller Gallery in Hyde Park through November 23, 2012) are beautifully executed works that exemplify eerie perfection.  The show is one of the best I’ve seen around town this year.  Both artists display their oddnesses and obsessions without self-indulgence, using old-school materials (mainly oil paint on canvas or linen) to uncover off-kilter and totally contemporary epiphanies.  They just simply get down to work.  The results are cheerfully creepy, and revelatory.

One on side of the gallery is a collection of Queen’s posh, sensuous still-lifes, painted with such precision and joy you feel as you look at them you are being tricked:  the slick, computer-generated hyper-realism of Pixar is supplanted by a sort of psychic-generated cartoon space.  You are inside somebody’s head, not seeing a movie.  Queen references still-life paintings from the Renaissance (especially the cold, crisp precision of Northern European painters like Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Claesz), but instead of fruit, flowers and drinking glasses, he arranges toys and knick-knacks and other ephemera to get his effects.

“Procession at Sunset” is the centerpiece of his part of “Altered States,” and has a grim, feral glow to it, like a horrible dream that wants to seduce you into thinking it’s a greeting card.  In front of a romantically rendered backdrop featuring a garish sunset, a toy skeleton trudges along, using a toy snail as its GPS.  The skeleton pulls a cage with a lion inside it.  Beside the snail is a little jumpy lamb.  The piece has a disquieting sense of whimsy to it, like an illustration from a storybook in search of a story, but also has the momentum of some kind of iconic narrative – a Bible story played out with thrift-store finds.

The arrangements in all of Queen’s still-lifes have a sense of total completeness to them, as if he is referencing moments in history without letting us in on whether or not the incident actually happened.  By using gimcrack objects as totems and fetishes, the stories the paintings tell to come off as intentionally stupid, gorgeously absurd.  Case in point:  “The Secret,” an oil-on-panel little masterpiece depicting a clown doll sitting atop a lamb and whispering into its ear.  The vignette takes place inside a dream-circus tableau, with a ceramic poodle vying for attention, spinning a ring on its nose.  The whole picture could be read as kitsch, and yet the meticulousness of Queen’s artistry allows you to seek other pleasures inside its kicky little universe.  Something just isn’t right because everything about the image has been delivered to us so succinctly.

Jefferson’s paintings have that same sense of concise reverie.  However, he gets at his effects through blanching violence into a sort of X-ray of itself, turning crashed cars and trucks into clenched muscles and broken bones.  In his painting called “Bully,” a smashed-together assortment of Depression-era automobiles are painted so skillfully their merger reminds you of glamorous migraines and old movies about shut-mouthed gangsters.  A feeling emerges from the hard reality of wreckage that almost allows you to see carnage as a blessing.

In his works, Jefferson seems dedicated to the elevation of cold, silvery violence to a sort of poetic language that doesn’t use words.  “Peacock” is his finest moment in the show, a sort of Andy-Warhol/David-Cronenberg amalgamation (with a little David Salle thrown in too) that takes a tired glance inside a 50s-era junkyard and turns it into an elegiac doo-wop.  Old cars, having survived their horrible wrecks, resemble a litter of monstrous puppies, piled on top of one another, breathing each other’s air.  All of that dead destruction and aberrant tranquility is surrounded in bright sky-blue, flattening the context until all you have left is a paean to metal-on-metal love.

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