Viewing Malcolm Bonney's large paintings at the Kenan Center Gallery, one gets the feeling that he thinks that by brashly and energetically mixing a variety of styles, subjects and art media, and adding a poetic title, he will create a profound artistic statement.
Unfortunately, these combinations tend to be confusing rather than compelling, and shallow instead of deep. Bonney's better paintings are the smaller acrylics on paper, because in them the subjects and intentions are clear.
A visit to Russia inspired most of the works in the exhibition. Several present re-creations of famous places, such as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Others show a merging of figures, interiors and landscapes observed while traveling. The interpenetration of diverse images is a surrealist device, yet Bonney prefers to apply the urgency of expressionism to his subjects, eschewing detail in favor of a broad, loose treatment. He also uses heightened colors, often contrasting blues and oranges, or enlivening muted areas with flashes of intense red, yellow and purple.
This latter quality animates the best of the large canvases, which depicts the huge interior of the Czar's greenhouse. Cryptically titled "The Teeth of Glory," the painting, unified by one-point perspective, shows a coherent space. This sets it apart from the other large canvases, which typically have fragmented, ambiguous spaces.
The largest painting in the show takes its title from Melville, "If His Chest Had Been a Cannon, He Would Have Shot His Heart Upon It," and the label informs us that it is in memory of Peter the Great. With careful looking one can make out several overlapping equestrian figures, painted in cold, harsh colors. The aforementioned interpenetration of forms, heightened by circular lines that radiate out from one of the figure's chest, yields an active yet confusing composition. Because of the painting's ambitious scale and subject, it comes off as bombastic instead of emotional.
The paintings' titles and subtitles reveal a wide range of intentions, from straightforward descriptions, as in "Nuages" (French for clouds), to curious or cryptic aphorisms, as in "The Knowledge of God Is the Bread of Angels" or "The Air Crackles With a Blue Tongue," to classical references and Romantic platitudes, as in "The Ashes of Phocion (Only the Fertile Woman, Or the Creative Artist Can Overcome the Transience of All Things)."
In "The Air Crackles With a Blue Tongue," two figures, delineated mostly in outline, are posed like jockeys, but it's not clear what they are riding. They are surrounded by large organic shapes in orange and beige, interspersed with areas of turquoise and ultramarine blue, which in turn are textured with grid lines as if spray-painted. The outlines of the large surrounding shapes interpenetrate the figures, creating again an ambiguous space.
Bonney mixes his media, often employing an odd combination of encaustic and casein. His use of these unusual media is puzzling, because he hides both the subtle beauty of wax and the unique dry look of casein under a thick layer of shiny varnish. Actually, a lot of the paint looks just like oil or acrylic.
Bonney's seemingly scattered sensibility is enhanced by his use of a wide variety of painting supports, including canvases, panels, found objects such as an ironing board, and neoprene (i.e. carpet underlayment, used because artist's canvas was difficult to obtain in Russia). Occasionally using found objects results in successful pieces. One is "A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck," which consists of a long, thin, light-colored, curving piece of wood with large pieces of vinyl records screwed to it and a round metal serving tray attached to the bottom.
In a small painting of the gates of the Hermitage, Bonney copies the technique of Julian Schnabel: painting on broken plates. This provides insight into the excessive and overblown quality of his large paintings. Bonney is enamored of 1980s neo-expressionism.
But when he lets go of this obsession and focuses on a single idea, his talent emerges. Several acrylic-on-paper paintings show a refreshing and unself-conscious directness. Pastoral landscapes, such as "Nuages," convey a freedom and delicacy of touch, as well as his typical hot colors. "Oscillating Obsessions" shows a bus interior with a floating, fragmented, awkwardly embracing couple, as if giving vision to the kinds of pleasant daydreams one indulges in to pass the time on a long trip. "In Our Season" is an effective expressionist study of three ballet dancers at the barre. Its restrained use of mixed media and unifying perspective scheme creates a work that is both individualized and satisfying.
Paintings in mixed media from the Russian Series.
Through Oct. 5 in the Kenan Center, 433 Locust St., Lockport (433-2617).