by George Melrod
If you’re not sure what you’re looking at when you first view a work by Tom LaDuke, well, that’s intentional. LaDuke’s paintings conflate layers of imagery in a single plane, creating a deliberate tension: while his new works appropriate fragments from cinema and classical painting, they are as much about how we perceive the world—and the act of looking itself—as the subjects they depict. At once reductive and overflowing with imagery and ideas, they raise self-consciousness to an art form.
LaDuke moved to Los Angeles with his family at age five; he got his BFA at Cal State Fullerton, where he studied with artist Tom Holste. ”He was like a damn Zen master,” LaDuke says. “I’ve never seen someone so perceptive.” From early on, LaDuke’s work engaged themes of illusion and actuality. Yet in contrast to his current body of work, which gleefully appropriates imagery, LaDuke’s early paintings were “purely observational.” In many of these works, the subjects seemed muted by a hazy gray scrim, which evolved in response to “the way the sky out here cancels out the difference between the foreground and background, the way everything is camouflaged … Gray was right because it reduced all the colors, but allowed object and space to occupy the same plane,” he explains.
Around 2004-05, LaDuke went through a dormant phase. One day, he recalls, “I was watching a film and … [noticed] the way sunlight came across the screen corrupted the image. It was one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments, the way you perceive yourself perceiving. I was looking at it, trying to cancel out the reflection of myself.” In doing so, he realized that he couldn’t see both images at once; instead he kept “flipping between the film image and the reflected image, collapsing on one glassy plane.” LaDuke’s current paintings actively play with that dynamic by superimposing three levels of imagery on the canvas: the first is a washed-out image from a movie that intrigues him. Next, is an image of his studio space as reflected on the monitor, with light flooding through the windows or other details from the viewing experience: “it could be as simple as a lens flare.” Atop this acrylic base, he then adds on abstracted details in oil from a classical painting he has matched intuitively to the film image. These colorful, thickly impastoed swathes are applied through a custom stencil, so that “I’m unable to see what it is I’m covering.” In one work, entitled Sharp, Distance, he pairs a menaced nude from Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange,” with snippets from Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. The reflected studio image includes a sculpture of a startled deer that LaDuke crafted especially for the project. In another, equally unsettling work, titled Here is, he pairs a shot from “Taxi Driver” with Manet’sExecution of the Emperor Maximilian, from 1867. The result is a jarring but oddly resonant counterpoint: an eerie puzzle on the subject of how images are perceived and consumed, which can itself only be perceived and consumed in cryptic fragments.
LaDuke maintains his studio at the Santa Fe Art Colony south of Downtown LA; besides paintings, his recent show at Angles Gallery included several uncanny sculptures, among them a crumpled plastic bag made of graphite and glue. “It’s not about mimicry, to me that’s the cheap seats,” he explains of aesthetic approach. That simply “lets people in; hopefully they stick around long enough to see what’s going on.”
Tom LaDuke’s work could recently be seen in a solo show, entitled “Auto Destruct,” at Angles Gallery, in Los Angeles, from January 16 – February 20, 2010.