The Art Economist

Volume 1, Issue 8, 2011
Artists to Watch

Reflections From a Screen Test

By Bruce Helander



From the responses we regularly receive from our readers, this section of our publication seems to be one of the most read and most scrutinized. The Artists to Watch feature celebrates high levels of invention and creativity, which we discover through a careful examination of past and current exhibitions and a constant pipeline of information and recommendations from our team of editors and correspondents. The recognizable characteristics of noteworthy
works in this section are that they must stand out as truly unique and often brilliant approaches to assembling tangible components of contemporary art, from picture making to sculptural objects to experimental works that fall somewhere in-between, perhaps with a dash of performance or collaboration with film and video.  Often, our artists to watch and their works covered in past issues are misunderstood, difficult and controversial; “talking” paint cans
(David Ellis), a photographic installation of a swirling lock of hair that becomes a fascinating sculpture in a miniature stage set (Petros Chrisostomou), an unearthed cello (Kristen Morgin), or a recreation of a peculiar environment, both in life-size and in astonishing miniature formats (Michael C. McMillen).

Tom LaDuke, a Southern California-based artist, fits appropriately into this distinguished group because he continues to produce intriguing paintings that, like the movie, A New Leaf, bring a new direction and approach within a creative category, as in a botanist’s discovery and documentation of a plant that is genuinely rare. For centuries, artists of all varieties centered on polishing their craft to create works that generally were limited in scope to an observation of the landscape or a customary still-life, complete with grapes. The goal was to carefully lay down invisible layers of medium that when completed, would offer a seamless, homogenized arrangement of convincing images to create illusion and depth with a traditional plan of action, and which might often generate space for a figure or two, surrounded by accents that were easy to understand and appreciate. LaDuke makes a truly unique departure from a respected painting ritual by unmasking deliberate, pre-meditated, layers of reality and imagery. These separate but equal components conspicuously “float” independently of each other, charging the surfaces with often broken bits and pieces of initially incomprehensible gestures that require analysis to connect their disparate imagery, as in a game that starts with an unsolved mystery and ends with a conclusive visual hypothesis. Other prominent artists, like David Salle and Sigmar Polke, have produced successful explorations of multiple layered images that became iconic, identifiable signatures. LaDuke takes this process one step further with a dog-eared playbook that is chock full of historical references from classic paintings by the likes of Goya, Velázquez and van Eyck. Another abstracted layer stacked like a levitating bunk bed offers visual clues that are harvested snippets from contemporary films such as Blade Runner, Star Wars, Taxi  Driver, A Clockwork Orange and even the cinematic canvas of Blue Velvet.


The artist begins his theatrical foundation by documenting depictions of the projected and reflected surface of the television screen in his studio. The hazy Payne’s gray background is filled with a menagerie of distant and out of focus objects, from a clown’s head wearing a bright red wig to a naked lady bending like a ballerina, or a window frame that becomes an additional artificial light source. Although these screen savers purposely are arranged to expose random, private, subtle circumstances, they become believable moments that set up the viewer as an unwilling voyeur and participating witness to a reality show environment that comes alive when the TV screen goes dead. With the setting delicately air-brushed and suitably primed for another layer of realism, LaDuke inserts another non-illusionistic ingredient appropriated from conceptually related classics of art history. Throw in the elements of film stills and the artist’s remarkable intuitive decisions to include heavily impastoed, seemingly abstract marks (which are actually carefully planned out, masked and fragmented sections of historic paintings) and all this add up to a new, very intelligent and provocative participatory revelation in American painting. Even without the painstaking base and
identifiable silhouettes, the multilayered, seemingly haphazard application of thick acrylic is in fact deliberately and recognizably accurate, but abstract at the same time. These highlighted surface areas that dance on the very top of the composition become handsome, almost de Kooning-like strokes on their own, but taken as a whole reveal the synchronicity with another episode in the artistic past.  The pictures don’t work unless you decipher a code that becomes apparent after careful examination. A lazy eye that passes by without connecting the dots misses the point of every canvas. This constant reshuffling of realism, surrealism and faux abstract expressionism seems to fluctuate like birds gliding effortlessly upon an air pocket, igniting a floating tension of divided space that is thoroughly impressive and completely unique. For example, in Sharp, Distance (2010, 60 x 80 in.), Tom LaDuke presents a superb example of his magical painted compositions, where fragments of three heads survive as if they are significant archaeologist’s clues on an aging fresco wall. The history tutorial comes from Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), where the chief doctor is explaining musculature to other surgeons. The obscure and fragmented references function well because the artist utilizes a classic composition that is recognizable even from a few scraps of evidence. One central face is perfectly positioned to bring the other participating profiles into focus, like a computer program that connects common denominators or distant relatives. A bloody, skinless arm extending from a corpse takes a stylistic clue from the cartoon-like scratchiness of Philip Guston’s late paintings or Susan Rothenberg’s depictions of hovering arms and limbs. A window in the background reminds us that LaDuke’s art is energized by a variety of light sources both historic and contemporary. A dead center nude figure joins the soap opera party as an anonymous guest. Another painting that is dissected, The Dead Toreador (1864) by Edouard Manet, performs the same mystical connection, because it is a familiar, iconic image that also seems to float in the original composition. This is a particularly brilliant subject to incorporate, because the painted figure originally was almost levitating, amplifying the illusion. The cryptic puzzle parts on three distinct levels offer the viewer a new sense of defining a picture, which at first glance seems haphazard and arbitrary, but soon becomes obvious as the visual plot literally thickens, with gesso-based passages that need to be deciphered in order to solve the case of the vanishing characters. 

With each work, separate kinds of stark reality are collapsed on a single plane: reflected, projected and present. LaDuke becomes an inadvertent time traveler, who recalls the best of his storytelling experiences on a multi-screen Cineplex that compels the viewer to stay for the last remaining credits. These pieces are no doubt just the beginning of a nearly endless combination of scripted situations that will continue to challenge the viewer as well as the maker. This is a serious and valuable artist to watch and acquire—trust me on this one.

LaDuke was the subject of recent solo exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Weatherspoon Art Museum. His recent show at Angles Gallery in Los Angeles at their new location on South La Cienega Boulevard was titled Auto Destruct. He is currently exhibiting in New York City at CRG Gallery. His works are in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, MOCA LA, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and Portland Art Museum, Speed Art Museum and Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as others. The artist lives and works in Los Angeles, California. (Angles Gallery +1 310.396.5019) – BH