There are few stretches of road on the American Highway that are both as beautiful and as tragically unappealing as the 10 going east from Los Angeles. The natural grace and grandeur of the landscape is still only on the verge of total domination by the forces of industry, but the evidence of the struggle is everywhere you look. Between the roadway and the majestic mountains, sweeping bronze fields, foothills like crumpled velvet and tracts of open sky, between you and there, are the developments, billboards, strip malls, Home Depots, car dealerships, McDonald’s and Indian casinos. It’s disconcerting and disheartening unless you catch it at sunset or at night. And it’s the only way to get to Britt Ehringer’s studio in Yucaipa.
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In a world of images multiplying like germs, a painting can be a kind of Petri dish. The paintings in Baghdad Pizza Hut investigate fluid moments in the compound visual dynamic that defines our culture today. We are bombarded with images from our TVs, the internet, billboards on the roads, posters on the sidewalks; the very air seems clogged with them; bacterial images proliferating and intermingling every moment. What Ehringer is interested in, what is signified by the multiplicity of techniques, styles, narratives and symbols he draws from to build these paintings, is the nature of the patterns that take shape during these unruly interactions. The lexicon of objects in the work (roses, paint drips, nudes, landscapes, costumes, foods, furnishings, butterflies, farm animals, weaponry, texts, surfboards) are part of a primarily pattern-making process rather than a specifically narrative one. However, due to the richness of the iconography, they simultaneously support a fabulist function as well. In other words, the objects’ situations in a rigidly delineated system encourages them to function like elements of abstract composition. Rather than following a plot, they create the illusion of narrative through juxtaposition. And, yes, women are used as objects on this conceptual grid; but they are objects of beauty and desire, much as works of art are themselves objects of desire in a market economy. Despite the sexually aggressive nature of several of the images, upon closer inspection the surfaces reveal a fine craftsmanship that bespeaks more than mere rebellion or iconoclasm. Ehringer demonstrates an obvious respect for painterly technique and the conventions of art history; and his employment of dozens of approaches within any given canvas emphasizes the hybrid character of his vision. By making it impossible for figures to inhabit anything like consistent space or a unified environment, the viewer is urged to regard each painting as a compendium of choices. On the one hand, the work’s humor and clarity of meaning are rooted in faith in the ability of strangers to communicate through images without language. At the same time, forces are unleashed which deconstruct this channel and undermine the idea that any image possesses an inviolable meaning. It’s a high-wire act, hard to achieve and nearly impossible to control. It is a slippery slope, but one that inhabitants of the modern city navigate every time they open their eyes. While certainly adding depth to one’s understanding, an art background is not required to comprehend this work. It’s more a general kind of awareness, a visual and psycho-social engagement with the world as it looks now. A curiosity as to what is going on out there, and what part you are playing in it.
I was surprised on the drive back from the studio by the reverse side of the view I had on the way out. To the north was a grand vista of lush green valleys that climbed up from the meadows stretching away from the roadside. Beyond them were snow-capped confectionary mountains reflecting the astonishing gold-pink glow of the setting sun ahead of me. Intervening as expected in the close middle distance between myself and this vision were the billboards that sat, blaring in silence, immediately off the road, forming a kind of bottom margin on the entire paradisiacal scene. Vulgar, hyper-crisp images of girls and beers and cars and actors, plenty of exclamatory text, plenty of garish color. But this time my irritation evaporated as the realization hit me: this is the aesthetic paradox at the heart of Ehringer’s work. We live in a world that does not filter our images; we get it all from the hideous to the glorious; we see it all and only then do we have the luxury of sorting it out for ourselves. One has not got the option of closing one’s eyes against intrusions, for to do so would also mean missing every opportunity to receive beauty and grace and life-giving stimulation, as well as every chance to figure it out. Let’s open our eyes – and go look at some paintings.
Shana Nys Dambrot