Roland Becerra, "Intruders," July 2-Aug. 27, 2002, at Rodger LaPelle Galleries, 122 N. Third Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19106.
In spite of the art world's stampede toward video and digital art, some artists continue to reach for the paintbrush.
Take Roland Becerra, for example. For several years Becerra, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and received his MFA from Yale in 2001, has taken inspiration from Old Master history paintings, using them as the point of departure for his narrative works. But the young painter has also picked up some storytelling tricks from contemporary cinema, and his paintings are genre-twisting hybrids -- Rubens crossed with Hitchcock; Gericault with George Lucas.
Becerra's work has always seemed homegrown, heartfelt and even a little campy. The artist uses family and friends as actors and the settings are the mundane family rooms, suburban bungalows and backyards of his experience. But for all that, Becerra's sophistication, intelligence, style and talent makes him one to watch.
In his fourth solo show at LaPelle, Becerra ratchets up the volume, pushing his paintings to the Outer Limits, to the world of horror and sci-fi, Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And whatever triggered the blood, zombies and alien invaders of this post-MFA, post-Sept. 11 cycle of work, a pall of post-traumatic survivor's grief sits on the exhibition, coloring even the comic touches with melancholy resignation.
With a painter's version of split-screen storytelling, Becerra's 60 works, in varying sizes and shapes, set the scenes and introduce characters and action. While each of the works can stand alone, the installation-like approach is particularly successful, allowing the narrative -- which seems to be about the clash of two worlds, ensuing war and its aftermath -- to unfold around you. There are moments of humor and moments of painterly beauty. Becerra is a great colorist; his cyber-influenced luminous greens and blues in the alien scenes are especially captivating.
And then there's the blood.
Several works give you full-frontal blood, applied like B-movie makeup, to the face and body of a character called, simply, "Blonde." It's shocking and funny, but you accept it in the context of the show, like the gratuitous blood in a movie. What pushes the Blonde pictures beyond gore, however, is the depiction of the face. Seen in four works, Blonde is painted delicately and with love. And it is mythic--a haunting portrait of sadness and perhaps madness, someone driven to extremes.
Painting isn't dead and it hasn't been beaten down by the digital video axis. It's alive and well in the studios of risk-taking artists like Becerra and others who paint with guts and vision. Painters will paint because both the call of the sensuous material and the need to make images are too strong to deny. Finding a way to capture today's impatient, video-wowed audience is the painter's challenge. By eschewing the safe middle ground of photo-derived existential snapshot painting, Becerra, and others like him who cleave to something original, are well on their way to plotting the course of painting's future.
ROBERTA FALLON is an artist who writes for Philadelphia Weekly, where this review first appeared.