I didn't clutch this week's common theme of painting-without-painting until days after I'd left Seamus Conley's Flash/Dissolve. The pitch had already been set by Michael David's daffily deft paint wiping techniques (reviewed below), a kind of scratchboard-in-paint. Conversely, Conley's work is all positive marks...without the marks. His paintings and drawings are essentially transmogrified digital prints. His technique, call it Photoshoprealism. To see his scenes as photographic prints requires a three-step backpedal, which presents a hard-to-deny slick beauty anchored in atmospheric and geometric perspective. His compositions, with their central enigmatic figures, suggestive props, and zooming backgrounds, evoke twisted amalgams of Matthew Barney (anonymous cowboys), John Woo (superfluous doves), and David Lynch (foreboding roads). Not surprisingly, every comparison is filmic.
Well, except one. Horrific space-time nightmares populate the Business section of every otherwise inert stock photography book. Collages of clocks, watches, charts, glass and steel, dashing suits, and most importantly anonymous speeeeeed envelope all-something like the communal airport experience. Conley captures this. The segmentation of backgrounds, ghosted time-lapse of bodies in motion, and repetition imply things we cannot see at once, and sometimes only see in our minds. The subjects, who are custodians of some sort and bottom-rung bodhisattvas of another, trudge, pose, and meditate...or just physically try to escape the threat in the distance. Denim and rubber gloves appear the standard wardrobe.
Almost every painting here has a pencil-drawn foil as well. Much smaller-roughly 4" x 11", they are equally detailed studies or alternate moments on the same plane as the paintings. A couple of these pairings, like Zenith, reveal marked improvements in paint. The tiara-wearing toiler is the same, but rearranged to make the upturned-VW hubcaps into searing Terminator eyes. Her pose. The stuttering background. It all compositionally trumps the drawing, which I can only assume was executed in preparation for the larger piece. Still, in most cases the limitations of graphite don't mar Conley's ability to create a melding, illusory depth.
The paintings achieve their ghostly portent via atmospheric fading, the blurring blues and browns in which opaque actors swim. Sometimes faded imprints from the figures trace motion. In Blips, a man violently thrashes his arms, throwing them out like he's trying to eject snakes from his sleeves, either in the act of running or fighting. Next to him a woman shimmies. They're clearly working to different tunes, like the actors in A Streetcar Named Desire. In this image, like all the others, the man's face is obscured. My favorite image here distills all the special effects down to a single corner. Bastard's upturned car in space is anchored to the lower left corner by its spilled fluid. It's otherwise among the pink nebulae and cold, black thither. But even where I love Conley's work as pictures, I don't like them as paintings.
Step inside the prescribed three-step backpedal to see the paint; there's no visual interest. I would argue the gauzy brushwork is actively ugly, and I think it would be disingenuous to say "But that's the point." Effectively like translating text to another language and back, the artist yields the original idea in a broken tongue. It is no surprise that Conley is a "self-taught painter," not because he lacks finesse and dexterity, but because his technique shows no evidence of being broken down and built back from a battery of experimentation. It's bland. While it's often so disappointing to see the photograph of a painting, I'm disappointed to see the painting of the photograph. Oh well, I can always stand back and enjoy.
(Images: Seamus Conley, Default, oil on canvas, 66 x 66"; Zenith Drawing, graphite on paper, 4.75 x 10.25"; Zenith, oil on canvas, 36 x 72"; Blips. Oil on canvas. 24 x 48"; Bastard. Oil on canvas. 36 x 48"; All images courtesy of Andrea Schwartz Gallery and the artist.)