Alternative universe

By GREG COOK  |  December 16, 2009

But the history of art is what's most on his mind, and it's rendered with increasingly trompe-l'oeil verisimilitude. Oops! (2001) is a painting made to look like a self-portrait cobbled together from a patchwork of doodles and art-history postcards stuck to a chalkboard. His hand holds a paintbrush — made of paint as thick as cake frosting — that seems to have splashed white across the thing, as if it were a parody of Abstract Expressionism. The title and "Oh God" have been chalked in the corners like orgasmic exclamations.

Paintings from the mid 2000s show the artist wrestling with planets or Towers of Babel, as if sheer will could keep the world from disintegrating. Bergstein also assembles tour de force 3-D collages, like Art Broke My Heart (2009), a sculpture of a heart constructed from art-history reproductions and images of fruit and hummingbirds. Sometimes he photographs everything and then reworks the print-outs with paint. I wish he'd take on a meatier subject than sampling art history, but his skill with painting and collage is riveting.

The style of early Boston Expressionism had echoes in the haunted figures — whose flesh seemed to wither before your eyes — that Ivan Albright painted in Chicago during the 1920s and '30s. By the 1950s, a group of dark expressionist realists — dubbed the Monster Roster and including Leon Golub and Nancy Spero — were also active in the Windy City. In San Francisco, the sunnier expressionist scenes of David Park and Richard Diebenkorn typified the Bay Area figurative school.

Eccentric expressionist realism grew hotter, funkier, and funnier while offering ever more impressive feats of traditional artistic skill in the 1960s and '70s with Chicago's cartoony Hairy Who (Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown, Karl Wirsum), Bay Area funk (Robert Arneson), and Haight-Ashbury psychedelia (Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso). Since the 1970s, lowbrow's mutant blend of comics, cuteness, pop, and painterly chops has flowered in California (Robert Williams, Gary Panter, Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, Camille Rose Garcia, Mark Ryden, Barry "Twist" McGee, Margaret Kilgallen) and inspired an international movement. It's received a significant boost from the lowbrow magazine Juxtapoz, which Williams founded in 1994 to give this sort of art its first regular national coverage. Over the past 15 years, folks like John Currin and Dana Schutz have become big in New York working similar territory.

In the '90s, Providence became nationally influential for the psychedelic monster expressionist screenprinters and cartoonists affiliated with its Fort Thunder and Hive Archive collectives (Mat Brinkman, Brian Chippendale, Jim Drain, Xander Marrow, Jungil Hong, Paper Rad); some of those artists even landed in the Whitney Biennial. In Boston, cartoony artists like Ron Rege Jr. clustered around Tom Devlin's comics publishing house, Highwater Books, which helped lay a national groundwork for a more artistically ambitious comics printed as beautifully designed art books. (Disclosure note: Highwater has published my work.)

Today, you might find descendants of Boston Expressionism in Bergstein and in the visionary eccentric-realist art of locals like Raul Gonzalez (at Carroll and Sons, 450 Harrison Avenue, through December 20), Mary O'Malley, Elaine Bay, Resa Blatman (at Suffolk University Art Gallery, 75 Arlington Street, through January 17), Laylah Ali, Derek Aylward, Caleb Neelon, Ria Brodell, and Hannah Barrett. Boston Expressionism is no longer identified by that name — it's traded gloom and doom for sunny pop culture, and the artists themselves may have no sense of being its heirs. But that moody, eccentric strain of expressionist realism continues to thrive.

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