These pictures, all painted in the last two or three years, draw on an aesthetic that’s nearly 100 years old, and on subjects that often imply an earlier era. But this first “retro” impression is misleading. Jon Francis’s new paintings are really timeless, and consistently arrive at a mythical place somewhere deep inside the heart of the American dream. There are baseball games and bikinis, old pickups and vintage movie theater marquees. All of it is at once a beautiful record of a vanished past and a compelling account of the mind of a contemporary artist.
Although the bulk of what’s on exhibit concerns California, there are two irresistible New York City pictures as well, and one of them reveals the full extent of this artist’s complex skill not only with the brush, but also in conceptualizing and composing his images. “Crossing Under” from 2008 is a view that’s as familiar as anything in American art-the twin arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a tugboat beneath bathed in the same golden light that permeates so many of Francis’s works. This is the image that inspired poet Hart Crane to write The Bridge, and photographer Walker Evans to take his iconic pictures of the bridge’s spans from beneath that this composition so directly references. But so much has happened since then that the picture’s similarity to these better-known images of the 1930s reveals a subversive subtext. As we gaze past the bridge toward Manhattan, we realize that the twin towers of the World Trade Center have come and gone in this world-an entire era summarized and completed by an absence. No wonder that Francis proclaims his faith in light sources and negative space as the two most inspiring tools in his kit.
Many of the other images are familiar as well. The Dodge trucks, the multiple Airstreams, the meticulously restored Laguna Woodys and Chevys, all have a monumentality that comes from their roots not only in a specific time and place, but also from the sense that they stand for a whole way of life. Icons represent the structures of feeling of a people, and that’s why they strike so deep.
Jon Francis: American Icons is on exhibit at the Sullivan Goss Gallery, in the Vollmer Gallery. Shows January 8, 2009 through March 29, 2009.