Tough, gritty, uncompromising. These words come to mind in looking at Jack Ogden’s recent paintings at b. sakata garo.
You need to have a little bit of “art brut” to make a painting work, Ogden said at the gallery. “Otherwise it’s too soft, too sentimental and ingratiating.”
No one would ever characterize Ogden’s work as ingratiating. It’s hard-core and hard-worked. Many of the canvasses in this show have been worked over and over, building up layers of paint while seeming to be slam-bang quick.
The artist in the studio is one of Ogden’s main themes, and “Step by Step” is a major work on that theme. Here we see the painter in his studio, sketches and small paintings tacked up on the wall, the canvas with an amorphous patch of paint, the tools of his trade – paint cans and brushes – wittily limned on the floor and on a shelf.
The subject, said Ogden, is a kind of last resort.
“There’s nothing left to paint but yourself,” he remarked. “It’s about the agony of trying to fill up the space as you go mano a mano with the blank canvas.”
In “Sez Me” the canvas functions as a door, an opening into the unknown. “Clean Sweep” gives us a pair of paintbrushes in front of a blank canvas, animated with the gesture and attitude of human actors. “Object” is a single fat brush in a can, a painting as blunt as any of Philip Guston’s late works.
“Paint Job” is a mysterious painting of a man in a yellow shirt, presumably the painter backed up by a male and female figure, the whole framed. as many of the works in the show are, by thrift-store finds he has sanded and painted on.
“Phiz” is more clearly a self-portrait in an arch with a kind of religious overtone that might have been called “Saint Jack.” It has some of the freshness and rich painterliness of ancient Egyptian fayum portraits.
“E” is a portrait of his striking wife, Eblis, in an elaborate frame the finish of which he has sanded away in places. It’s a bravura painting in which he uses a few broad strokes to set down the essence of Eblis’ face.
Of works like these, Ogden said, “It’s about how the game is played, how to make a mark function, to make a gesture works as a face.”
These marks take on an almost lyrical quality in “Modest Infanta,” a painting of a nude who covers herself modestly. In the background are shadowy figures of men in hats, and off to the right, the painter hides behind his canvas. It pits the private nude against the public men, who have an ominous though insubstantial quality.
Women again appear in “Finale,” a large painting based on a photograph in an old Life magazine of a 1940s Chicago burlesque house. It portrays a chorus of strippers in exotic costumes vigorously rendered in jarring colors.
Also based on photographs but not beholden to them are a trio of strong paintings:
• “Fire,” based on a picture in the San Francisco Chronicle of restaurant workers watching a fire, is dashingly painted and portrays the odd casualness and boredom of the witnesses to the fire.
• “Father’s Day” is a portrait of 19th century workers, perhaps miners or cowboys, each wearing a hat and staring at the camera. They are placed against a background of violent violet from, Ogden said, an old tube of paint that was eating away the metal of the tube.
• “Stagehands” takes center stage in the exhibit, a deadpan painting of figures based on photographs of German spies during World War II. The men, with their sickly green shadows, stand as if in a police lineup, their clothes rendered with bravura brushstrokes, their faces ranging from expressions of innocence to sly evasiveness.
Asked if his work was taking a new direction, Ogden described his approach as “directionless.”
“In an age of pluralism, everything goes, and nothing goes,” he observed. “You do what you can do. I’m not in the iPhone or iPad world. (These paintings) are not going to be seen on YouTube.”
Indeed, the 80-year-old painter seems more at home in the eras of the 1940s and 1950s and in the vast reaches of art history.
It’s gratifying to see a painter whose work gives strong evidence of the hand and mind at work. Don’t miss this show.