Larry Madrigal and the Aesthetics of Relief
nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles
Through December 4, 2021
Written by Grant Vetter
The debut of Larry Madrigal’s most recent body of work at Nicodim Gallery secures him a position within a long tradition of allegorical painters that allow us to see how something unexpected can emerge just from picturing the world around us. Whether we think of Edward Hopper’s alienated figures, Eric Fischl’s images of suburban estrangement or Jenna Gribbon’s impromptu encounters, all of the above offer us a picture of more than just a moment in time. While all three of these painters came to public prominence during very different periods of history, they all engaged with psycho-sexual themes, allegories of the everyday and even a degree of voyeurism in order to capture the feeling of an era. Madrigal’s work moves along similar lines but provides an entirely new twist on these ideas with the exhibition “How Dare We Now Live,” which is not a post-pandemic missive so much as a circumspect attempt to rehabilitate the genre picture within the world of contemporary art.
This is foregrounded first by the anti-heroic bent in his work, where the artist is often pictured as a somewhat frumpy, slightly overweight and balding figure who acts the role of a beleaguered presence in his own paintings. Whereas Hopper and Fischl both chose to produce images at something of a remove from their subjects and themselves, Madrigal’s claustrophobic compositions tend to put us in close contact with all of the people in his paintings, including himself. In this regard, his work feels decidedly closer to that of Gribbon, who is celebrated for the sense of candor and authenticity that she brings to the practice of painting, but as part of a very different working program. Perhaps this is because what divides Gribbon’s art from that of Madrigal is that the latter doesn’t avoid moments of the pathetic, the accidental or even the occasional prat fall. Instead, Madrigal celebrates these unexpected slip-ups in an effort to capture how the theatrical is always lurking behind life’s little mishaps.
The second big difference between Madrigal and his forerunners in the world of genre painting is that he is producing these works as a Mexican American artist and his imagery disrupts many of our cultural assumptions about how machismo, masculinity and patriarchy are upheld or subverted by Latinx gen Xers. This reorientation of values is evidenced by Madrigal picturing himself in so many vulnerable situations, whether in the midst of making a party foul, an accidental fall from a swing set, or racing along the freeway to get home on time. In each of these instances, the message is clear: life doesn’t always go as planned. But what is even more important to note is that in all of his compositions, it is the viewer that finds themselves entering the work by way of an intimate angle, a revealing posture or at a moment of private reserve. Cultivating this sense of uncertain proximity is no small feat in a time of nearly universal cynicism, heightened political polarization and ubiquitous fear about the consequences of social congress, such that we might even be able to speak about Madrigal’s most recent body of work as being engaged in producing an aesthetics of relief.
Another point of entry into thinking about Madrigal’s art practice is by way of his relationship to the type of neo-mannerism proffered by artists like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and many others. What connects his paintings to the major figures behind “the new mannerism” is the adoption of a style of paint handling that borders on rendering his figures as caricatures of real people, and yet, Madrigal also knows when to pull back from allowing them to become too cartoonish, truly outlandish or simply grotesque. Or, to add a bit more specificity to the description of his project as an artist, we could say that Madrigal adapts how he renders the pedestrian moments of life to fit the mood of each and every painting. A funny moment is made to connect with a looser execution across the breadth of the canvas. The picture of a serious social blunder might rely on expressionist gestures to capture the exaggerated reactions of onlookers. Even Madrigal’s more reserved scenes rely on a balance of academic sophistication mixed with a sense of frivolity, slap-dash passages and other forms of notational mark making that reveal how the ineffable is hidden within the quotidian.
The fact that Madrigal is able to move between these disparate registers with a deft sense of facility suggests that there are a number of other influences that also exert a powerful pull on his selection of scenes and themes. These would include artists like Honoré Daumier, painters from the Ashcan School and even more contemporary realists like Jerome Witkin. All of the above tended to create portraits of society as much as they did intimate pictures of their sitters and Madrigal’s work trades on capturing something of this effect too. Thus, when any number of discrete episodes from Madrigal’s life are paraded before us, whether it is his wife reading to their daughter, or watching over a group of kids colliding on a slide, or even the image of Madrigal himself attempting gymnastic crossovers with the whole family – it evokes a sense of both the precious and the precarious. In this way, we aren’t just onlookers in Madrigal’s work, but participants in a space that evokes the charge of restless anticipation as much as it does moments of personal reflection.
All of the above brings us to a final set of observations about how the anxiety of influence can show itself as an artist truly comes into their own, or what the critic Harold Bloom used to refer to as the play of revisionary ratios with regard to how each generation negotiates with the contributions of the past. With this in mind, we can say that if Madrigal’s work mixes allegorical and neo-mannerist tendencies with a touch of domestic realism, then the final ingredient in his aesthetic is a secret fascination with the “Old Masters.” This is not to say that there aren’t wholly saccharine moments in his oeuvre that are hard to digest at times, only that Madrigal is at his very best when he deploys the virtuosity of Velázquez in paintings like “Tickle Fight,” or in the adoption of images that feel closer to Ingres’ Odalisque in “Your Love is more Delightful than Wine.” In these works, Madrigal is able to seamlessly blend a touch of Manet’s looseness with the play of subtle halftones in a way that feels natural, uncompromising and complete.
In fact, one could argue that the sheer delight of studies like “Exhale” and “Enchanting Innocence,” which depict Madrigal and his wife blowing bubbles, only serve to draw us into conversation with his larger, more complex works. But for those who are overly wowed by his technique, and who think of Madrigal as one of today’s ascendent realists, I would beg them to look again at how memory, fantasy and projection play a much larger role in his work than one might first suspect. The feeling tone of dreams, of a life lived less ordinary, or the magical depiction of everyday occurrences are never wholly absent from the pictorial constructs that Madrigal engages with, not to mention how they inform his personal sensibilities.
And yet, what places his work at the forefront of a younger generation of artists who are mining the resources of genre painting once again is Madrigal’s ability to turn our expectations on their head by creating counter-narratives about fatherhood and family life. Thus, his real contribution to contemporary painting – beyond being a sophisticated cartographer of the human condition – is that Madrigal relishes the complexity and the conundrums that emerge from our everyday exchanges in a way that allows his images to have as enduring an effect as paintings from ages long past. His ability to capture the esprit of existence while still managing to give it an air of timelessness is not just the critical import behind all genre painting, but rather, it is the way in which it is carried off through the selection of subjects and the articulation of the minor over the major, or what many call the colloquial over that of the grand style, that makes his contribution something of genuine significance in the world of fine art today.
How Dare We Now Live is on view at Nicodim Gallery from October 28 – December 4.
Nicodim Gallery, 1700 S. Santa Fe Avenue, #160, Los Angeles, CA, 90021.
Grant Vetter is a freelance critic, the Head Curator of Fine Art Complex 1101 and the Author of The Architecture of Control from Zero Books.