Jim Vogel: Cante Jondo, Blue Rain Gallery, 130-C Lincoln Ave., 505-954-9902, exhibit through July 31, 2014
Thomas Hart Benton, that famous painter of proletariat America, was born in Missouri in the 19th century to a family of prominent regional politicians and lawyers. Maybe it was rebellion that sent a teenage Benton all the way to Paris, where he dabbled in Cubism and ruminated on color theory with Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Diego Rivera. Nevertheless, Benton returned to the States and eventually settled in the decidedly less-exotic Midwest. He was inspired by the ordinariness of his environs, once describing them as “the most complete denial of aesthetic sensibility that has probably ever been known.” It wasn’t a totally cynical statement; he ultimately championed the struggles and challenges, even the tedium, of working-class life.
New Mexico resident Jim Vogel makes his home north of Santa Fe in the pretty but remote little town of Dixon. His surroundings are not exactly quotidian, but perhaps his rural homeland invokes a patriotism like Benton’s; surely his outsize, almost cartoonish oil paintings reference the latter visually. Cante Jondo, or “Deep Song,” is the poetic name of Vogel’s latest body of work. In it, he examines New Mexico’s subcultures with characteristically dramatic color and his trademark elaborately handmade frames. This small group of new paintings (there are eight) expands on Vogel’s long preoccupation with exaggerated figuration, manifested in lively depictions of people with big hands who respond to their surroundings with demonstrative emotion.
In ¡Olé! a dancing couple is framed in an antique New Mexico trunk, its opened spine dividing the composition into two panels. On the left is a man with a serious, determined face. Though his feet and huge hands appear in riotous motion, his eyes are fixed on the woman to his left, whose red skirt billows around her heeled feet, which stomp the dirt. Behind each dancer are a much older man and woman, hypnotized by an unseen rhythm. Combined, the characters create a sense of movement that’s palpable and self-aware.
Vogel’s populist sensibilities are more pronounced in works like the innocuously named Sueños de la Primavera (Dreams of Spring). A woman in a swirling white dress hovers protectively near a man who sits against a tree, his face obscured by a brimmed hat, his big hand clutching a bottle. The painting’s hand-carved wood frame is embellished with glimmering copper leaf, which elevates the humanity and poignancy of the scene it borders.
Nuestra Señora de la Gente Errante is like a retablo, a Latin American devotional painting of Catholic saints and holy personages. Here, the señora is pictured before striped green curtains and supporting a small child. Her tiered turquoise skirt, layered chain necklaces, and gleaming gold rings make her look like a fortuneteller or a curandera.
Once, when Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings were slammed by a critic for being too loud and not in good taste, the artist replied, “They represent the United States, which is also loud and not in ‘good taste.’ ” Perhaps this sort of thinking-person’s patriotism applies to the work of Vogel, whose paintings represent his corner of the United States with beauty, wit, and compassion.