Now You See It

MIKE JAVERNICK: NEW PAINTINGS
Elliot Smith Contemporary Art

As Mike Javernick's work has developed over the last three years, it has made various ambitious stops around the city. I first saw his work at Art St. Louis in their annual juried exhibition of four regional artists in 1995. The best pieces in that show, I recall, were his prints -- pale-yellow backgrounds with a grid of frenzied, yet orderly, line drawings. His weakest works were his paintings. After seeing them, I understood why the prints were monochromatic -- Javernick had a poor relationship with color. Blobs of yellow, green, a swirl of red -- the pigment stood inertly on the canvas, resisting composition, handicapped by a hideous brown background.

I next saw Javernick's work in a group show at a now-defunct Clayton gallery. The work was not as memorable as a talk the artist gave about it one evening. Javernick has a degree in the life sciences, so he has learned a scientific language that is foreign to most. He talked not of artistic choices or strategies that night but about how these shapes -- those tight, arching lines -- developed, somehow, on their own, in the same manner as mutant cells.

If you're an artist, an easy way to deflect criticism about your judgment is to confound your audience with a language that might sound profound. Most artists do this with artspeak; Javernick had science to make his shtick unique.

Last year Javernick, who teaches art at Washington University, was included in the City Series exhibition, the premiere of a series to be juried by curators at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in which the artists of a select urban center -- that is not LA or New York -- become the focus. Javernick was not only selected for this show but was part of the exhibition Science! at the Forum for Contemporary Art last summer. Now he has a solo show of new paintings at Elliot Smith Contemporary Art. Javernick's route through the small local art scene could serve as a blueprint for artistic progress.

Throughout these last three years, Javernick has proved that he understands both his strengths and weaknesses (this is said disrespectful of any claims of change occurring through random selection). He has moved away from the traditional canvas to employ resin as the skin of his painting. This serves to create an illusion of depth, especially in work such as "Oscillia No. 7," where figures seem to have emerged onto the surface while others linger below. In regard to this painting, and the others in the "Oscillia" series, Javernick continues his investigation of line -- most successfully in "No. 7" -- and shows a more sophisticated understanding of space and spatial relationships. There's an intelligent play between vacant and filled space.

Javernick still has a fear of color (or he's just inept with it), so the paintings here are contained within a limited color scheme. The "Oscillia" paintings are of a jaundiced skin with red-orange lines. The three paintings titled "Mycellia" are dull pink microorganisms squirming around on a gray background. Javernick does best when he does least. In the "Stroma" series, "No. 5" contains on a white surface a thin pink line near the right-hand edge, with faint pink circles alongside it. There are gray circles within circles, a green and brown culture of circular forms, and one ghostly yellow stain. With a few shapes and colors, the artist attains an intriguing compositional balance.

Javernick is by no means a bold artist, nor is he one who can handle numerous variables. In "Stroma" paintings 3, 4 and 6, he introduces a group of green drips that look as if they belong on a musical score. In the other two large "Oscillia" paintings, he foregoes the more delicate composition of "No. 7" for an attempt at some bold line-play with grand, thick strokes violating the picture surface. These do little more than show that Javernick can play quiet, but he can't play loud.

As the titles suggest, these paintings are large-scale revelations of the petri dish, "the beauteous world found under the electron microscope" a narrator on The World of Disney might intone. "Stroma" are the "fibrous connective subtenacular tissue of an organ," according to the OED, as well as "the framework containing the alveoli of cancer-cells."

These paintings, then, are portraits of nature: the minute lives living within other lives, that even prey on other lives. Javernick's artistic approach to nature is benign, bordering on kitsch. These are paintings comparable to romantic depictions of the forest primeval, except that here the artist makes nice with microorganisms. Pretty paintings, for the most part, but lacking a dramatic vision that would evoke something more than a reflection of things seen, or patterns found.

The phrase "invisible made visible" comes to mind -- the title of the equally kitschy Angels from the Vatican. The phrase itself holds some power, with its implication of the struggle involved in bringing a spiritual being into common light, not wholly of its own volition. Javernick's paintings make the invisible visible with all the drama of a science project, with the artist as the kindly Mr. Science explaining it all for you.

The politeness of this work makes me reconsider the bad, vulgar paintings of three years ago. Javernick's imagery has mutated into attractive designs that beg nothing more of the viewer than appreciation. Under the microscope, the artist has found life forms to pose as abstraction -- a benign enterprise. What of Blake's "fearful symmetry," or Frost's "design of darkness to appall"? Or Pollack, who poured abstract forms from his being and pronounced, "I am nature"? An authentic vision of nature is known by how it provokes hard questions; the artificial gives easy answers.

The exhibition continues through March 14.

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