There's an uncanny sense, upon entering the Jundt Art Museum's new exhibit of work by E.J. Krisor, of having wandered into the quiet of the European wing of the Art Institute of Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The compositions seem strangely familiar, a protective hand gesture mimicking the taut Michelangelo hands of his religious paintings, the folds of red velvet curtains suggesting the rich textures of Vermeer. But just as quickly, the images assert themselves and you're nowhere near the world of the Renaissance and the Baroque but rather the contemporary milieu of tribal tattoos, magenta punk hair, pierced navels and discordant family groupings. It's like a visual tremor, an earthquake, and suddenly you fall out of the time warp into the present.
Which, in essence, sums up what Krisor does. His contemporary paintings and drawings are executed in the tradition of the Old Masters, but his subjects and themes are consistently of the late 20th and early 21st century. His canvases are enormous -- many of them are larger than six feet tall and eight feet wide -- and his palette most closely mirrors the warm tones of the Baroque era. On one wall, a young woman stands earnestly giving voice to some deeply held conviction, a Caravaggio-green backdrop giving her silent words weight. On another wall, the ruddy curve of a woman's jaw brings to mind the warm fleshy tones of Rubens' Diana Returning From Hunt. And the composition of yet another piece, the seemingly biblical The Book, could just as easily be Michelangelo's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. While his subjects might be Asian students, street kids, the kind of frat boys you might see at a Dave Matthews Band concert, or displaced hippies, they're rooted in what feels like a much older and established artistic tradition.
Not surprisingly, Krisor studied art in Rome right after graduating from Santa Clara University. Feeling that his American art education had lacked what he was learning about Baroque and Renaissance painting, he returned to the United States to study under the renowned contemporary painter Eric Fischl at the New York Academy of Art. Upon graduating with his MFA, Krisor began exhibiting at various Manhattan galleries. What is surprising is that until recently, Krisor was working and teaching in near-obscurity in Ellensburg.
"His main interest in studying in Rome was to rediscover the artists and materials of the high Baroque. His goal in coming to Ellensburg was to isolate himself," explains Paul Brekke, assistant curator for the Jundt Art Museum. Krisor chose Ellensburg because his wife had family there, but the 33-year-old artist relocated to Los Angeles last summer after his divorce. From Fischl, from the painters of the Baroque, and from his own experiences, Krisor has been influenced by and developed an emphasis on the psychological drama in painting.
"The main thing you see in Baroque painting is the psychological focus. There's always a strong focal point there, telling a story," says Brekke. "You see that in the strong diagonal compositions of the figures, which Krisor does, and you also see it in the use of landscape and still life. In still life in particular the draperies are used to create a sort of rhythm. There's a movement there that's almost like water."
The "visual vernacular," the implied familiarity of the Old Masters that Krisor evokes, is one of the reasons this show feels so remarkably accessible. "He says 'My paintings are never direct references to anything biblical or art historical," says Brekke, "but there are many indirect references." For instance, art history students can see elements of Rubens' Samson and Delilah in the familial discord of Krisor's The Prodigal Father. Similarly, studio artists can learn a lot about technique just by studying how Krisor's newer works are intentionally "unfinished" in places. For instance, in the three newer works The Court, The Compass and Conventional Wisdom, the heads, faces and upper torsos of his figures are rounded, detailed, perfectly finished. But moving down towards the legs, they lose definition the lower they go until you get to the shins and the feet, which are just blocked-out, sketchy shapes of rosy brown. Follow the eye back upwards and you can see how the artist builds layer by layer until the gleaming curve of an arm, a neck emerges.
"You can see the transition from super-realism to abstraction within the same work," he points out. "It's not altogether unseen, nor is it strictly something you only see in contemporary art. In the last 200 years or so, you see this expressed belief that the unfinished state is just as beautiful as the finished. Cezanne often left his work unfinished, as did Monet, with those white edges. And particularly in the three most recent works, I think he's wanting to show us the process of the artist thinking, from the canvas up through the layers of paint."
And yet none of this is to say that the art is accessible to the point of being unchallenging. Krisor's work is full of provocation, unanswered questions, narratives that you feel like you should know but don't. The painting Chase is troubling in that a couple is running on the beach. It's hard to tell if the man is attacking the woman, or reaching out to save her before she stumbles over a rock. There are other ambiguities, too. It's hard to tell whether the artist is mocking youth culture in Butterfly or finding some common ground there. His Connection is as disquieting for the immediate suggestion of racial tension (the snapping power lines, the futile silence of the phone off its hook) as it is for the unfinished telephone pole in the background that might -- or might not be -- a crucifix. There is also a piece --Strung -- that at first looks like a punk girl helping her friend shoot up. On closer examination, however, one realizes that she's only holding a green string tied to his forearm. Add to the fact that many of Krisor's figures are strong, supple, life-sized nudes and you get the sense that while this show may be lovely to the eye, it's somewhat unnerving to behold. But Brekke points out that this is where Krisor's gift lies: What he's saying might often have two or more interpretations. For instance, in Butterfly, which has five young figures in a Mountain Dew-commercial assortment of activity, one girl is kickboxing in the direction of a lithe, backbending young man, while another guy with a weird similarity to David Schwimmer is airborne and lunging after a butterfly.
"He could be making a negative comment on youth culture. That main figure has kind of a dumb expression, really," concedes Brekke. "And whatever it is that they're doing could be incredibly frivolous. But it could be something else entirely. Here you have a sort of macho guy flying through the sky to catch a butterfly, to catch his soul. And then there's this woman kickboxing and for whatever reason, having to be all macho. Either way, he could be saying that everybody is or feels a little out of touch."