Art Galleries

Ten Moments from the Twentieth Century: Paintings by John McNamara

When: Feb. 20-May 15 2008

Traditional history painting sold a myth of national glory sanctioned by divine authority. Nowadays we may sensibly scoff at the stagy kitsch of "Montcalm Expiring on the Plains of Quebec" or Napoleon transmogrified into Zeus, but we still yearn for spectacle and meaning. This series of ten images by John McNamara at the TownsendCenter reinterprets history painting in contemporary terms, balancing the sublime and the banal, the tragic and the beautiful. Challenger lifts off, a Bosnian war victim lies dead in the street, an astronaut space-walks, and Woodstock audiences revel in mud; these realistic vignettes are surrounded by abstract high-relief squiggles, stripes, lumps, and even detritus (all made of paint, and affixed to, or half-excavated from the painting surfaces). These encrustations forbid us psychic entry: they're distancing devices. Auden's famous poem about Brueghel's painting "The Fall of Icarus" painting points out how daily life's beauty swallows up the heroic and tragic; perhaps these paintings make the same rueful point. (McNamara is also showing his Merger dual portraits of Barack/Hillary, Nixon/Bush, Teresa/Diana, Andy/Jeff and Jackson/Pablo in the annual Faculty show, Make the Art You Need, with sixteen other artists, at Kroeber Hall 166, through February 22.) Ten Moments runs through May 15 at TownsendCenter for the Humanities (220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley). or 510-643-9670.

DeWitt Cheng

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