Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Postmodern Time Travel

By D. Eric Bookhardt

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  It's official now: the Art for Arts' Sake threshold has been crossed, and the new art season is upon us. Just as the ancients measured time according to the cycles of nature and the food supply, we moderns measure time along the lines of the football, fashion, art and entertainment seasons -- mass-mediated events that of late seem increasingly hazy around the edges.

Webster defines time as the measured passage of "events," but noteworthy "events" require the kind of defining "moments" that have been in scarce supply lately. In football, there is no new Joe Montana, just as in fashion there is no new mini-skirt, no new Paco Raban. In art, there is no new Picasso, Pollock or Warhol. Lacking any momentous art world events, we are left with time on our hands -- as an issue, a question of style and meaning that postmodernism should have addressed but never really did.

Which brings us to Alexander Stolin, who is from the Ukraine in the former USSR, where he was a pop-art fan in a place where time got stuck somewhere between modernism and the baroque. It is the kind of culture clash that could have posed problems even after his move to St. Tammany Parish. But Stolin, true to his vision as well as his roots, is a pop-baroque artist.

This is more than amply illustrated in his 5-foot-plus square painting, Rembrandt & Nathan's, a vision of Rembrandt and various Dutch masters promenading down the sidewalk past Nathan's Deli in New York. Rendered in Stolin's weird mix of Warholesque pop-electric colors and ornate, sharply etched lines like antique steel engravings, Rembrandt conveys a startling sense of presence along with an airy lack of corporeality. So it is both banal and precious, antique and modern, there and not there. Stylistically, Nathan's facade suggests the 1950s, an epoch of bluntly pulsating graphics, the heyday of Times Square, Sputnik, Dave Brubeck and cars with fins. Rembrandt and his troupe of Dutch masters stalk by like the ghosts of colonial Dutch real estate appraisers.

Summer is perhaps the most graphical and emblematic of the lot, a view through a late modern window framing an antique Greek bust and a Victorian baroque cosmetic set on a shelf. Through all this we see a rectangular blue pool outside, the spectral silhouettes of three bathers and a palm tree -- a David Hockneyish vision of sunbelt sensuality reduced to a ghostly afterimage.

Summer is emblematic of Stolin's craft.

Others are even more whimsical, as Tea in Manhattan illustrates. Here, an old style Chinese mandarin takes tea while contemplating a bit of Manhattan skyline from its cubist go-go days. And while this may evoke Hong Kong real estate developers in exile, it is more likely a meditation on time, space and light over the ages. There is a scene in one of William Gibson's cyber novels in which a huge data storage satellite turns itself into a vast Joseph Cornell shadow box and starts devouring time and space like a dark star (or the Hindu deity Kali). The 1990s is sort of like that -- but in the abstract -- as global commerce and the mass media reshape the world in their own image, leaving only plastic replicas in place of what was once real. Stolin offers an ironic take on this desiccating process, a kaleidoscopic mirror maze where past, present and future all coexist in the same space.

Of course, a century or so ago, Gaugin felt that industrial society was sucking the life out of France and took flight to Tahiti in search of something more authentic. More recently, local photographer David Halliday followed his lens to Tonga, a lacy mesh of Pacific atolls south of Samoa, to see what could be seen of this ancient Polynesian culture in transition.

What he found there was pleasantly paradisal in the classic South Pacific mode of trade winds, balmy blue skies and friendly sepia-toned natives. It was a nice fit for Halliday, who likes to print sepia anyway. Tongan culture reflects pagan sensuality tempered by sobering centuries of British colonialism; hence, the sea, the land and the remnants of old tribal Tonga are the most visually compelling subjects. We see this in luminous fans of palm fronds and fish traps from the beginning of time as well as tribal-era implements dating from the time of the god-kings. Here Halliday displays his flair for classic compositions and archaic techniques that cut to the essence of his subjects by invoking their timeless past, their organic, pre-electronic aura.

If Halliday's Tongan time travels seem rather retro in tone, other images elsewhere in the gallery extend his overall scope. This is seen in some insect studies, in elaborate images of wasps radiating aureoles of luminosity like icons from some Darwinian Twilight Zone -- a place where insects ruled as god-kings, and where time and light held secrets of their own.


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