Whether the art is traditional or contemporary, the painterly techniques being used have changed little in the over 150 years since Manet was working; some contemporary artists rely on even older methods that date as far back as the Renaissance. So the way many realists keep their work fresh is not through technical advances, but choice of subjects. The edgier the subject, the more contemporary the painting — even though the methods used to create it are time-tested.Proximity, a show of Peter Illig‘s latest figural paintings in Pirate’s front gallery, makes the point that realism combined with the unexpected keeps contemporary representational painting relevant.
Over the past five years, Illig has exhibited his neo-pop narrative work in a variety of venues. Typically, he’s shown paintings in which disparate images are juxtaposed à la James Rosenquist and his artistic heirs, such as David Salle; for example, he’s painted women’s faces inserted in an airplane-assembly-plant scene. Although a few paintings in this older style are included, for the most part his pieces at Pirate link separate, single-image paintings together in multipart assemblages, creating an effect similar to what he’d been doing before. Each of these new paintings features straightforward images in an easy-to-read representational style, even if the individual panels are sometimes done in different palettes, or in half-tones; he then hangs two or three works together in a tight cluster.
One such pairing, “Zip Me” and “Moving Target,” is given the most prominent place in the show — the east wall immediately inside the door — so that the paintings are the first things viewers see after entering Pirate. They’re hung so close together that they almost touch one another. “Zip Me,” which hangs to the left, captures a scene right off the cover of a detective novel. On a lurid yellow ground, two figures — a man zipping up a woman’s dress — are seen, with both posed so that they turn away from the viewer. Illig adds a mystery-novel punch to this mundane scene by including a single disturbing detail: The woman is brandishing a pistol. “Moving Target” depicts a different woman, one who’s walking toward the viewer. The expression of concern on her face, her clipped gait captured midstride, and the black-and-white half-tone Illig uses all add to the sense of anxiety introduced by the gun-toting “Zip Me” woman.
In another set of paintings hung on the big south wall, Illig puts “Poet,” a black-and-white half-tone painting of a man surrounded by hanging light bulbs, next to “Cubist Dream,” a Technicolor shot of a woman pulling her blouse over her head, and “Oblique Reference,” another black and white of a woman lying on her back. The ad hoc ménage a trois is charged with sexual energy.
Illig’s paintings are redolent with a multiplicity of interpretations. But the myriad of meanings notwithstanding, there’s little doubt as to his actual topic: men’s sexual attraction to women.