Lawrence Gipe’s Zirkus and Varieté

At the Ro Snell Gallery. Shows through April

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world of subtle implications and buried historical references.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

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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