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    Slyly Awry
by Meredith Mendelsohn
Dream Car
John Bauer, Oct. 22-Nov. 28, 1998, at Clementine Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.

John Bauer's paintings depict commonplace images from suburban America -- a convertible sports car, a cozy stone house, a duck decoy. They seem like straightforward kitsch in their candy-colored, cartoonish simplicity, but signify a kind of horror underlying the American dream.

Bauer's first solo show included five such paintings, all made with clean, thick brushstrokes in acrylic and oil on canvas. The works appear to be done on raw plywood, an effect Bauer creates by painting the backgrounds of his pictures with a roller patterned with a faux wood grain finish. The finish flattens the background space so that each object looks like it was set up to be photographed in a studio or posed for a modern still life. This formal device is rather fitting, considering all of the images are actually representations of representations -- a toy, a miniature, a decoy, a statuette.

Duck, a picture of a wooden decoy, suggests the dubiousness of the duck's ubiquity in American home décor. Reverently raised on a high shelf, it looks like a trophy, but at the same time, it's painted in profile, smack in the middle of the picture, like a mug shot. A series of sunspots shine on the wall above it, trailing the duck's head as if it were really moving on water. The image looks dumb -- as dumb as you'd have to be to fall for the duck-hunter's trap.

The convertible pictured in Dream Car could be real or a toy -- with its bright pink color, it looks a lot like Barbie's Corvette. An ominous swarm of lights lurk in the background. They come not from the car's headlights, but from traffic up ahead, or maybe an 18-wheeler gaining ground. Regardless, it's a car with no driver, facing an electric chaos.

In Jesus, a porcelain figurine stands on a mantel or bookshelf, overlooking an apparently empty space. Only the back and a sliver of Jesus' profile are visible. Light beams in the background like someone is parting heavy curtains. Tucked in an awkward space behind the statuette, the viewer is one of Jesus' disciples at the Sermon on the Mount, but the multitudes are nowhere to be seen and God, for his part, is peeking through the drapes.

I can't help but think of a 17th-century vanitas still life in which skulls, clocks, flowers and the like are meant to remind the viewer of the transient nature of material possessions and beauty, or more generally, mortality. But here, mortality manifests in the guise of impotency. As Bauer points out, "The car will never move, the bird will never fly."

MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is assistant editor of ArtNet Magazine.

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