Let's be up front about this: I don't always get it. Sometimes I have no idea what an artist is trying to do. Contrary to the well-worn myth that visual art should be instantly accessible to anyone, much of the most interesting art really isn't, at least not at first. As with football, it helps to know the game. Most art that's instantly accessible got that way by being so totally predictable that it would be almost impossible not to get it. Yet, not all hard-to-understand art is interesting. In fact, most of it isn't, for the simple reason that even the artists themselves may not know what they're doing. What I find puzzling are those artists who do seem to know what they're doing, yet whose work seems vaguely unresolved and hard to figure nonetheless.
Denyce Celentano's paintings puzzle me because their loose brushwork seems almost impressionistic, but not quite, while their taut psychic complexity seems almost expressionistic, but not quite. A lot of Impressionism, European and American, was little understood, even shocking, when it first appeared, mainly because its atmospheric aura was unfamiliar at the time. But people soon learned that most successful impressionist paintings were poetic and pleasurable to look at. These beach and swimming scenes by Celentano start out appealing to the senses, but then there's this odd twist when you start looking into them. Rescue is emblematic. At first it just looks like a group of miscellaneous adults and kids on a beach, with kids playing in the sand as the adults look seriously adult. The woman on the right, staring into the distance with a concerned look on her face, soon undermines the sensuality of the sun and sand and breezy brush strokes. Her expression suggests that something serious may be happening somewhere out in the water. But the kids, of course, continue obliviously playing in the sand. The trick to being an art critic is to be able to put such images in context, yet Celentano may be on her own here. It's slightly, but only slightly, reminiscent of Eric Fischl's curiously creepy expressionistic nudes, and of George Dureau's early beach scenes from the 1960s (which are still some of his best paintings). But what this mostly, and quite unexpectedly, recalls is early childhood adventures at Pontchartrain Beach before it was closed to swimming. As kids, we always had a good time, but there always seemed to be something out there, sometimes sand sharks, but also, as we soon learned, pollution as well.
This scene could be an Atlantic beach or a Chicago beach on Lake Michigan, as there's an urban vibe of waiting for the other sandal to fall in this series of closely related images that, in an earlier time, might be called existential. Another acrylic canvas, Two Bathers, depicts two young women frolicking in the surf, and the palette of vaporous blues and greens is almost as dreamy as Monet's water lilies. But the body language is odd. Maybe they like each other, but one seems preoccupied with -- what? Is it something slimy in the water, a jellyfish or some other nettlesome thing messing up the mood? With Celantano you never know --Êit's always modus interruptus, as the gifts of the sea turn unsettling. But this is one of my favorites in a series I still find vaguely baffling.
In fact, what this series precipitated was a desire to see how the lakefront was coming along after suffering so much devastation. It had been a while, so it was great to see that the green space along West End Boulevard was green once again and no longer a vast, mountainous debris dump. If you live in Lakeview, the progress may seem excruciatingly slow, but if you haven't seen it lately, it looks great compared to this time a year ago. The same goes for most of the lakefront, as people slowly come back, ensconcing themselves near the ruins of shelters and such. Gazing out over the deceptively tame-looking lake (anyone who sails knows how it can turn on you), I recalled that unsettled undercurrent in Celantano's work, and while I still can't say what it's really all about, it did inspire some fairly interesting ruminations, regardless.
- Rescue, an acrylic beach scene by Denyce Celentano, looks breezy but is really far more psychological than it first appears.