The landscape paintings by Nicolas Gadbois on view at Back Street Bistro Artspace are garish in appearance.
The colors trend toward the chromatic apex of their respective families in a way that is usually only seen in postcards. Some of the works are monochromes à la Mark Tansey; others fluctuate between complements, reds and greens permeating every object. In any case, though the images depict quasi-realistic settings, there isn't much of an attempt at realism.
Gadbois' execution favors hard edges and solid forms over a so-called painterly approach. More than anything, the work resembles paint-by-numbers, with their concentric halos of color, albeit with a penchant for psychedelia. In other words, the works don't seem to strive for beauty—an interesting conceit considering most of them depict the most romantic of images: the sunset. However, these are not sublime settings to be admired or savored. This is a metaphoric sunset, as if the twilight of civilization is about to commence.
The subject matter primarily consists of man-made structures—billboards, road signs, radio towers—sprouting in silhouette against fiery skies. A few works depict those weird cell phone towers built to look like they are going to a Halloween party dressed as trees. Blacked out in the sun's fierce backlight, these inert ornaments of civilization loom on the horizon, ruining the view.
For me, it isn't love at first sight, but soon the works' strength begins to show through. For one thing, the paintings are hung high on the walls and, as is the nature of a bistro, there were chatty diners preventing me from getting too close. If the works I did inspect closely may be used as a sample, a little distance is a good thing. The surfaces are a bit uneven, a detail that is all but invisible a few feet back. In fact, from across the room, the bold, graphic shapes demonstrate Gadbois' strong compositional sense. The paintings possess a good balance between light and dark, subject and environment.
The groupings are also strong. Except for a peculiar image titled "New Mall," in which the shadowy entrance to an adobe building gapes ominously, the works seem to need company. This might be the result of their limited palettes, which are enhanced by the contrasts with neighboring canvases.
The tipping point is the handful of images in which the artist superimposed a stenciled font at the bottom of the canvas, the way a file photo may be captioned when shown on TV. For instance, a row of identically ordinary houses is labeled "Las Vegas." In another, a car drives across the desolate West toward the horizon, where Gadbois deadpanned a sinister pun with the words "Vanishing Point." I'm glad the artist didn't employ this technique in every image, but in moderation it provides a bit of comedy in an otherwise austere group. Especially funny is the way the titles parrot the embedded text. Word-centric pop artist Ed Ruscha would be proud.
Intellectually, it is hard to disagree with some of the claims the artist makes—namely, that we suck and we are making a lot of mistakes—but, as is often the case with dystopian work, Gadbois also vilifies some things that are fairly benign. While it may be true that cell phone towers are beacons of ever-increasing control by corporations, are the companies at fault? After all, we the people decided to pay for these things. If we didn't all have cell phones, the providers wouldn't erect the towers.
It's unclear whether or not this project is cathartic—one could argue the time would be better spent protesting, writing letters or running for office. At any rate, painting probably does very little to propel an audience toward action, and I am not sure what Gadbois would have me do. In his statement, he portends a "primitive future," which stands in sharp contrast to the jovial mood of the customers enjoying their Hungarian mushroom soup.
Through Feb. 27
Back Street Bistro Artspace
513 Camino de los Marquez