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Darkness at Gloom

In his knee-weakening show at the Dorsch Gallery, Arnold Mesches presents a foreboding vision of a world shrouded in gloom, delivered with a sideshow carny's flair and a wizened old devil's sure hand. "Coming Attractions," his 124th solo exhibition, is fermented in an Insane-Clown-Posse-meets-Edgar-Allan-Poe vibe, and may be one of...
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In his knee-weakening show at the Dorsch Gallery, Arnold Mesches presents a foreboding vision of a world shrouded in gloom, delivered with a sideshow carny's flair and a wizened old devil's sure hand.

"Coming Attractions," his 124th solo exhibition, is fermented in an Insane-Clown-Posse-meets-Edgar-Allan-Poe vibe, and may be one of the most corrosive commentaries on the decaying zeitgeist to come along in a while.

The sprawling exhibit features more than 40 staggering works, including 22 large-scale canvases that make the 84-year-old artist seem more sniper than painter, each work raining round after round into the skull.

Mesches, who has been painting for more than 60 years, seems to be oscillating on a frequency wholly apart from other artists. His work exudes a raw energy remarkable for someone his age.

Although the works are undeniably dark, they are vitally of the moment, gorgeously executed, and a marvel to behold.

Political skullduggery, bioterrorism, homeland security, the carnage of war, and jingoistic yahoos are among some of the themes Mesches conveys with a detached sangfroid and an unerring eye.

Situated on the far back wall of the main gallery, Coming Attractions I depicts three sinister-looking waiters wearing maroon tuxes and standing onstage in the empty chamber of an opulent opera house. Behind the pale-faced triumvirate, which may allude to the prez and his cronies, a battery of tables covered in white linen fills a sickly green dining room in a scene that appears lifted straight from The Shining. The vast, empty hall is devoid of life and painted in deft slashes of ochers, oranges and reds. Mesches covers the ceiling's vault with a coat of tarry black, dribbling it across with a dust of sparkling stars.

Perhaps the artist is suggesting that the ghouls in government have been fattening us into prostration with their bread and circus games.

Another creepy work from the same series is set in the colonnaded dome of an empty opera house that suspiciously resembles the Senate's interior. Laundry hangs to dry across the lower section of the composition. The image seems to hint that rank-and-file pols fell into line while the Bush administration plunged us into the Iraq war.

Near the entrance of the gallery, Coming Attractions II is among the largest paintings on exhibit. The cesspool-hued acrylic-on-canvas work engulfs the spectator, depicting a congregation of morally bankrupt potentates milling about in the murky halls of power, while a dozen cut crystal chandeliers provide the dreary scene's only light. To the far right of the composition, a scarlet banner, emblazoned with the image of a wide-eyed soldier wearing a gas mask, adds a garish riot of color to the disturbing scene. Mesches brilliantly renders the chandeliers with a rich impasto, giving them an almost lacy effect that leaves one struck by how forceful and secure his brushwork appears in his work.

Close by, another painting in the series incites a chilly frisson of dread. A rotting, crumpled jalopy is captured dissolving in the toxic shallows of a swamp, under a canopy of gnarled and bruised flesh-tone trees. A flock of crows perches on the rusting hulk, its carcass glinting in cadaverous greens and bleached bone hues. It's a nightmarish reminder of America's slavish dependency on oil.

In an adjacent gallery, the octogenarian wizard's pyrotechnics continue with a series of circus-theme works peeling the curtain back on Oz.

It's a Circus 3 depicts Uncle Sam as a saber-rattling, on-the-stump huckster surrounded by lurid yellow and orange flames. A red lion to his left and a green dragon to his right drown the gasbag icon with their roars. Across a mustard-tone field above these figures, black stallions suggestive of the horses of the Apocalypse gallop under a rainbow of Old Glory battle flags.

Mesches fingers a nerve in another canvas from his frighteningly carnivalesque series with a spectacular piece referencing 9/11.

In It's a Circus 5, the painting's background is splattered in a muddy shithouse veneer. The words "Shooting Gallery" leach out in an arc at the top of the picture. Sandwiched between an elephant and giraffe, a rancid clown, who looks a bit like the Sid Haig character in House of a Thousand Corpses, grins psychotically over a dense scene of the Big Apple's skyline. A Flash-Gordon-like rocket hurtles over the city's buildings, a riveting reminder of the day that brought America to its knees.

Mesches demonstrates a deep capacity for conveying the torrent of stench polluting society, without ever bending the spine. He even hints that there's hope from slipping into the abyss.

For those craving a hard-hitting show to lose sleep over, this howling nightmare is it.

Downwind at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery, "Family Jewels," Michael Vasquez's first solo show, serves notice that there's a new sheriff in town.

That the talented 23-year-old sold out his show — raking in a pile before opening night — comes as no surprise. The whippersnapper can sling paint.

The exhibit is thematically structured to tell the story of a lad's coming of age.

Vasquez, who was raised by his single mother, bolts out of the chute with luscious oil and aerosol works on canvas that depict his life at home and on Miami's mean streets. In the main gallery, the paintings portray the hood rats and hustlers the former gang member grew up around.

Vasquez snaps the clamps on the spectator with Grim, a hard-nosed portrait of a dreadlocked thug with his head cocked back, throwing up gang signs with his hands. Behind him, some sections of the canvas remain raw while others bleed with red paint.

Next to it, Bloody Buddy Ro dishes out more of the same. It's a portrait of a bare-breasted teen speckled in ink, a large tattoo hailing the "thug life" scrawled over his paunch.

On an opposing wall, A Sign that They Really Cared captures three fuzzy-cheeked hoodlums tattooing each other while quaffing a quart of Eight Ball malt.

In the back of the space, sectioned off by a swinging wooden gate, Vasquez portrays himself as the dutiful son, whose tight bond with his mother helped set him straight.

Some pictures show the artist as a boy throwing out the trash, while others show him helping his mom dry the dishes.

In the center of the space, an unusual life-size sculpture, painstakingly crafted out of Legos and modeling glue, takes a maudlin stab at dad: It's called A Father That's Always Around (I Always Wanted a Real Father).

In an age when single family homes are more often the norm than the exception, one wonders how long Vasquez will seek to carve a name for himself by firing weapons of mass dysfunction.

But for the moment, at the beginning of what seems might be a sharp-shooting career, one has to give him the pass as he moseys on down the good, the bad, and the ugly homespun road.

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