Mark George vs. Ronnie Land

by Madeleine Peck Wagner
Two artists sharing a gallery space isn’t an unheard-of idea. Turning an unused office space into a gallery definitely isn’t unheard-of. However, what sets club-owner Christy Frazier’s newest venture apart is its emphasis on combat. Well, as much combat as two people who spend most of their time alone in a studio can be combative (excepting those denizens of the Cedar Bar from 50+ years ago).
Frazier, a longtime supporter of the visual arts in Jacksonville, decided to turn an unused space in the 5 Points Theatre building into a gallery at the prodding of local artists Mark George and Tom Pennington. “I proposed an ‘office party’ kind of deal,” explains George, who says that idea then morphed into the gallery Versus. The first show- a one night only extravaganza- features Ronnie Land v. Mark George.
Pennington and Frazier came up with the idea of “pitting” two artists against one another, à la the famous Jean Michel Basquiat/Andy Warhol collaboration. In the poster for the show, Basquiat and Warhol are pictured wearing Everlast shorts and gloves. It’s a pretty iconic image that, though shot in humor, highlights some of the tensions just below the surface: Warhol was a name-brand artist trying to return to painting and reinvent his relevance, while Basquiat was a rising star, collaborating with his hero.
On both sides there was a certain amount of advantage-taking going on, and in a film snippet from 1986 featuring both artists, it seems that Warhol is uncomfortable in his own skin, while Basquiat moves with a sureness that leaks into his painting choices, though ultimately many of the duo’s collaborations were panned as being neither Warholish nor Basquiatesque enough.
But enough of art history, on to art present: 2010 has been a good year for George who says he’s painted more than ever before, has had shows in Atlanta and Seattle, and is looking forward to showing his work at the Harold Golen Gallery in the Wynwood Arts District this December during Art Basel Miami. He’s excited about the Versus show, and when asked about his preparations for the event, George, who is best known for his figurative pop-art inspired works on corrugated roofing material, says, “I’ve been exercising and eating right; I’m gonna come out swinging and clobber him.”
On a less strident note, George says the works he plans to show are some of his larger comic book-based portraits and a suite of one-by-one-foot works. These one-by-one pieces are primarily parts of faces recalling fragmented statuary. Because of their fragmentation (eyes, lips, chin and cheek), the works depersonalize and therefore distance themselves from the vestiges of portraiture, even if the portraits are of imaginary people.
Emotionally compelling with enough information to construct a brief narrative, the paintings; tear-filled eyes, trembling lips, a masculine square chin; also stand on their own as icons of a kind of overwrought humanity of yesteryear. Though there might be a kind of hyperbolic drama in George’s images reminiscent of certain movies from the 40s and 50s, the anxiety present certainly has a parallel in contemporary life.
Artist Ronnie Land too, obliquely comments on contemporary culture and life. Jerry Cullum, the senior editor of Art Papers, and one of the most respected art writers in the Southeast, wrote of Land’s work “Land has serious subtexts about the direction of our society.”
Cullum is right. Though a cursory reading of Land’s work showcase a kind of delightfully skewed perspective on neutral or cutsie themes, a closer look reveals a kind of morbid fascination with decay and dementia. Land himself is grateful for Cullum’s ability to pick up on the more subtle messages he embeds in the pieces, and that sometimes get overlooked because the image, or the humor, or of another element that could distract a viewer. However, when directly asked about the grotesque elements in his work, Land is quick to lighten the conversation up, talking about his earlier, cartoon-based work, “I don’t know that I think about directionality that much, and probably the early aesthetic was more [interested in] the oddball, cartoony; whereas now, it’s a slightly more refined one.”
Though throughout his entire career Land has made works in a variety of media, it has always been the funny/creepy/tough critters, all outlined with thick black paint that recalls primeval ooze, that he is best-known for. More recent pieces include “softer,” imagery, the natural result of stylistic evolution. But in a recent commission for the automaker Scion, Land revisited some of his older characters, and says he loved the entire project.
As one of Jacksonville’s most beloved sons, Land barely needs an introduction. Periodically he returns to his hometown (he currently resides in Atlanta) to host art shows and hang out in the city. “I do come home for my friends and family, and now my wife’s family who are also from Jacksonville… Atlanta definitely has my heart, but Jacksonville has this soul…” says the artist whose family traces their roots here back over a century. And he likes to show here for a couple of reasons. First, unlike Atlanta, here Land’s collectors have only one place to get his work: the antique mall Fans and Stoves at the corner of Lomax and Park streets in Five Points. Plus, it’ll be fun. He says coming home is always a good time.
For the Versus show, Land says all the work to be shown is being created especially for it, “It’ll be ridiculous,” he says.
George and Land showing together will make an interesting presentation. They both take as their points-of-departure humor and cartoon imagery. But where Land takes an additive approach- his figures seem to blossom with growths and muscles, George takes a reductive one. Occasionally reduced to whispers on a wall, George’s pieces look to the forms of Mid-Century Modernism to answer the questions of painting and materiality.