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Let It B

Jonathan Postal and James Starks at Jay Etkin Gallery.


A new exhibit at the Jay Etkin Gallery offers the photography of Jonathan Postal and the watercolors of James Starks, in what is being dubbed "The B Show." The theme developed from several shared pet subjects: boxers, burlesque queens, and ballerinas, not to mention that the two artists happen to be buddies. But, the stale B routine aside, the pairing is perhaps more of a study in contrasts.

Postal has been a photographer for more than 20 years, working on editorial and fashion assignments in New York, Milan, London, and elsewhere. While maintaining a career as a commercial photographer, since 1989 the artist has cultivated a following with his art photography, recording images of humanity that aspire to an archetypal timelessness. Postal gleefully tells a story about how during a previous exhibit an elderly woman insisted to Etkin that in 1934 she had dated a man depicted in one of the photographs, unfazed in her conviction even after being informed that the image was contemporary.

The manner in which Postal makes a picture can be traced to the ideas of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Inspired by the automatism of the surrealists, Cartier-Bresson championed an approach to photography that emphasized capturing the essence of a particular subject by framing the picture at the so-called decisive moment. As such, none of Postal's photographs are staged or cropped after the fact. This "what you see is what you get" approach is accentuated by the fact that the whole negative is printed, so that each image includes a black border and the film's sprocket tracks, a practice that Cartier-Bresson initiated.

There has always been something offbeat about Postal's images; perhaps it is because they often evoke a seedy and even voyeuristic attitude. It is this quality that one notes in Baptist: Crying, in which a parishioner holds a handkerchief up to her sad face. It seems to be a scene that would be considered too intimate to document, something of a trespass, and is unsettlingly reinforced when one recognizes a fellow voyeur peering from the margin of the photograph.

Unfortunately, not every picture drips with the raw immediacy of Baptist: Crying. In pictures like Bronco McKane, in which a man is captured in a patented boxer stance, and the blandly frontal Blind Mississippi Morris, nothing seems to distinguish that particular moment from any other. Don't get me wrong, there is some fine work here, but part of the let-down is that Postal's past exhibits have had a more indelible impact.

Infrequent appearances notwithstanding, Starks is esteemed as one of the most gifted artists in the region, perhaps best known for his oil paintings. Three such works are present in the current exhibit, and while they have been around Etkin's gallery for quite some time now, they are still a treat to behold. For the uninitiated, the artist seems to subject the surfaces of his canvases to extreme torture: scumbling, scuffing, and sanding them into submission. By the time the painting is finished, one can get lost lingering over the luscious topography.

The newest offerings, however, are watercolors, and the artist's handling of the medium is just as distinctive. Starks favors a sort of crass graphic style reminiscent of Georges Rouault, as in Beautiful Girl in Garden, in which blunt outlines define the image of a nude woman squatting among flowers. As in all of the works on paper, the drawing is rendered loosely and fleetingly, but even when the artist is being a slouch, there is panache in the quality of his marks.

Boxer in Yellow Trunks is a good example of this lazy confidence as well, where the facial features of the caricature dissolve into the murky wash. Starks seems to be interested in an almost childlike approach to his subject matter, simplifying form to create memorable symbolic figures. This carefree attitude brings a unique freshness to works like Because You Are Not Special, where a silly face in profile looks to be drawn on a whim, uncontrived and devoid of any pretension, then saved from the scrap heap for this exhibit.

Color is utilized to set a mood, and it is represented no better than in Boxer in Blue Trunks. Here, a swamp of earthen washes serves as the ground for an almost fluorescent blue gouache that silhouettes the figure, a technique that mirrors some of Starks' use of opaque color to veil and isolate passages in his oil paintings. In most cases with the works on paper, color does not define form, as its watery spontaneity serves as a counterpoint to the chunky drawings.

"The B Show" features some very nice work by both artists, but since it recycles several older pictures, the potency of the exhibit is undermined somewhat. Ever since Etkin moved into his larger digs, it seems to be more of an ordeal to deliver cohesive exhibits, as a greater quantity of work is required to fill the gallery. Certainly, there must be a better solution to this problem than to just dust off old work.

"The B Show" through April 24th at Jay Etkin Gallery.

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