Right This Way

Lawrence Gipe’s Zirkus and Varieté

At the Ro Snell Gallery. Shows through April 13.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

This exhibition of recent paintings by Lawrence Gipe builds on the metaphor of humans performing in a circus until it contains a world of subtle implications and buried historical references. Acrobats leap and tumble toward one another across eerily empty spaces while teams of unicyclists approach the viewer in tenuous formations. Gipe, who has been a mainstay of the Santa Barbara scene for years, also has a major retrospective at the Arizona State University Art Museum, now through June 10. Like one of his inspirations, Gerhard Richter, he demonstrates technical virtuosity in the service of a highly conceptualized approach to his subject matter. Beginning with photographs and building his images from a mixture of analysis and experimentation, Gipe creates iconic representations that address the contradictions of modernity and urbanization with fresh, subversive, and often dark perspectives.

The current crop of images is drawn from archival photos that depict circus performers of the Weimar period. Gipe sees the history of Germany in the 20th century as exemplary of the potential of modernity for both menace and grandeur, but particularly the former. In these gorgeous canvases saturated with negative space, the acrobatics of the performers take place in what appears to be a howling abyss of darkness. Not for nothing is this circus most often seen as a precarious balancing act. Gone are the powerful locomotives of Gipe’s earlier work. Now we are left with a set of images that suggest the perilous status of civilization in the modern world, brightly lit and highly disciplined, but still a single short step away from potential catastrophe.

The images have been realized in two principle formats—relatively small monotypes and very large (96-inch-by-126-inch) oil paintings on polyflex board. Each format has its own virtues. The monumentality of the giant “No. 2 from Zirkus and Varieté,” which gives a frontal view of four unicyclists, generates a powerful physical response in the viewer. The predominantly black-and-white palette is leavened with blues and grays, and the array recalls at once military formations and the kinky sexuality of such iconic images as the famous “Sie Kommen” of recently deceased fashion photographer Helmut Lang.

On a more intimate scale, the monotype “No. 13” from the series shows three acrobats performing a complex hanging pose beneath the glare of some huge theatrical lights. The world this work explores is at once familiar in its manner and content, yet decidedly strange in this context and under these new circumstances. While the Barnum adage that “there’s a sucker born every minute” was coined here in America, the spectacle of German circus performers between the wars should give us pause. What is the death rate for suckers? For a few years at least, it is likely that they died a lot more frequently than they were born.

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