MORE SO EVEN THAN his abstract brethren, the representational painter who doesn't bring a healthy dose of self-consciousness to his trade these days runs the risk of being labeled a dinosaur: corny, unhip and irrelevant.
At a pair of area galleries, two artists specializing in figurative work demonstrate polar opposite ways of coping with this pitfall. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Bruno Perillo, at Irvine Contemporary Art, lets the viewer know, with a wink and a nudge, that he is himself willing to poke fun at his chosen medium. In witty, conceptual works that allude to both highbrow and lowbrow culture -- to the cliches of art history and advertising, of popular movies and music and the contents of museums -- he makes sure we know that he's in on the joke, that he isn't so much a painter as a "painter" (air quotes required), and not of objects so much as representation itself.
Arlington-based Chawky Frenn, on the other hand, at Fraser Gallery Bethesda, makes no such apologies with his brush. From a classical nude contemplating a human skull to his latest series of still lifes of slaughtered animal carcasses, Frenn is an artist's artist (as opposed to a critic's artist). Both men manifest technical mastery of their craft -- albeit with a certain irony in Perillo's case, devoid of it in Frenn's.
The title of Perillo's exhibition, "Allegory/Anti-allegory," makes it clear that he's interested in playing with face value.
Take "Dreamy Dad," for instance, which smirkingly depicts a blandly handsome man standing in a field of yellow flowers against a sunset sky. The figure's windswept hair, white slacks, scrupulously slouchy shirt -- is that sand-washed silk? -- and knotted sweater draped over his shoulders suggest nothing so much as an ad, perhaps for Polo by Ralph Lauren, or maybe one of those generic place-holder photos that come with cheap frames. Vying for our attention in the picture plane, however, are three upside-down, textbook-size versions of John Singer Sargent paintings, including the National Gallery of Art's "Street in Venice" and "Nonchaloir (Repose)." The resulting tension between these competing images -- which, on the one hand elevates a throwaway picture appropriated from the mass media to a museum-caliber piece, and, on the other, debases icons of so-called high art -- neatly critiques the fluid social mobility that so characterizes American society.
Other examples of Perillo's art traffic equally in subversion. In "My Parents Are Home," the artist paints himself, nude but for a red velvet curtain held demurely across his lower torso. In the figure's posture and the Caravaggio-like trappings of the scene, the painting is as traditional as they come, save for the subject's goofy, bug-eyed expression, which could have been lifted from a bad teenage sex comedy. Similarly, the young woman checking her make-up in a bathroom mirror in "Sarah #1" and "Sarah #2" suggest a magazine fashion spread, even as the wings tattooed on her bare back suggest a more angelic, or at least art historical, context.
In "Secretly Hoping for Plan C," Perillo again paints himself, this time sitting in an armchair in a position not unlike that of "The Thinker." Yet unlike Rodin's famous figure, who meditates on issues of salvation and damnation, here Perillo's somewhat androgynous subject holds a package of contraceptive pills, and a worried expression. Further destabilizing our expectations is the feminine blouse worn by the apparently male figure, who stymies our attempts to read an easy narrative into the image.
Frenn is equally comfortable with ambiguity, a quality that's obvious in three paintings depicting disquietingly androgynous nudes. Yet it is not bare flesh -- at least not human flesh -- that makes up his most disturbing, and, to my eyes, most satisfying, work. Based on photographs taken in butcher shops during trips to his native Lebanon, Frenn's latest and best paintings depict decapitated sheep's heads and beef cattle at various stages of slaughter.
Like all of Frenn's art, they're an attempt to take something ugly and turn it into something beautiful, or, as he says, "to transform manure into new life, [excrement] into fruit." In addition to their shopworn memento mori message, though, that reminds us subconsciously of our own mortality, Frenn pushes other readings of his work. One of his carcasses, after all, is called "Kosher or Halal?" in a reference to the futility of killing in the name of religion (halal refers to Muslim dietary laws).
This theme is echoed in the show's title, "US and Them." The work is most effective, however, not when it's taking rather obvious swipes at American imperialism (the uppercase "US" is intentional), but when it's making subtler hints about xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism and other tools of oppression.
Like Perillo's "Allegory/Anti-allegory," Frenn's "US and Them" makes hay from the tension of opposites. In addition to the battle of good vs. evil, Frenn's favorite, the age-old struggle between thanatos (death) and eros (sex) make frequent appearances here. The artist is most successful, though, when he refrains from telling the viewer exactly what to think (or, more precisely, what he thinks).
Of course, we're all going to die, and Frenn, who immigrated to the states 23 years ago as his homeland plunged into a bloody civil war, likes to remind himself -- and us -- again and again, with skulls, skeletons and cramped claustrophobic figures on canvases whose margins sometimes seem like the walls of coffins.
As understandable as their origins may be, painted polemics only go so far. Pictures like "Don't Panic! They Called Us Terrorists," which features the severed heads of a sheep and goat (one grotesquely flayed), or "Caution! Religion," which includes an American flag-draped human corpse, pale in comparison to those that leave us only feeling slightly off balance, without knowing precisely why, as with his trio of butchered animal skulls called "Law, Justice, Mercy" or "Human, All Too Human."
BRUNO PERILLO: ALLEGORY/ANTI-ALLEGORY -- Through Oct. 16 at Irvine Contemporary Art, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-332-8767. www.irvinecontemporaryart.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 6. Free.
CHAWKY FRENN: US AND THEM -- Through Oct. 6 at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-718-9651. www.thefrasergallery.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 to 6. Free.