Bottoms, Up

From classical to Koosh, NoDef's Cheryl Castjohn takes in a pair of shows at the UNO St. Claude Gallery.


Peter Hoffman’s show “Chubby Crimson Bottoms,” now on view at the UNO St. Claude gallery, is a collection of sizeable to massive oil paintings which he has reinterpreted from works of various periods, but all inspired by a quote from French art critic Denis Diderot. The show takes its name from a carefully crafted commentary about Francois Boucher’s acolytes. Diderot proclaimed Boucher as a force to be reckoned with due to the underlying emotion evident in his paintings. The art critic mocked Boucher’s students for adopting Boucher’s formal style, but missing the brass ring that was the spirit of the artist's paintings. With his post-modern take en homage to the masters of the Baroque and historical, Hoffman proves that he is not your average painter of chubby crimson bottoms.


Hoffman’s paintings are LOL’s and LMFAO’s of classical paintings – a kind of snarky but pretty short hand that says, “So that’s historical painting and all that it entails,” regarding art that at one time took itself so seriously as to assign hierarchies of importance. It is pictorial only in the sense that it speaks to other trained artists like knuckle cracking informs a belligerent bar co-patron. Hoffman’s snark lurks beneath the surface of his paintings and they are dangerous fun, thanks to his artistic knuckle-cracking. They are muscle straining beneath a tweed jacket, or an inverted pool cue poised casually on the shoulder – hazardous only if scrapping breaks out. 


There is something rough, or at least a little improper, sitting under Hoffman’s acculturated oils but on top of his canvases. His “Woman Holding a Dove” flexes a lot of painterly muscle in the way she comes to life when your shoulder is turned. You can smell the fresh air on the woman herself, and sense that she is probably having difficulty staying on her chair. Not only eerily alive behind your back, the painting seems like it might be hot to the touch. Hoffman displays no nipples, no asses, just a keen sensibility when it comes to body language.


His oil-painted plasters are just as alarming, which is saying a lot when you compare them to the size of his canvases.  In “Defeated Figure,” “Bust,” and “Repose,” Hoffman has captured the essence of major sculptural themes, busted up the Laocoon into digestible bits and coated them in pastel hues of seafoam, peach and lemon icebox pie yellow that could neatly coordinate with your Crate and Barrel bedding from next season. Artistically speaking, Hoffman has successfully reddened all the chubby bottoms he has come into contact with in this show.


'Keep It Up'

If Hoffman’s “Woman” happened to be your sister, you’d advise her to stay far from Vanessa Centeno’s “Keep it Up.”  Centeno’s piece de resistance is a soft sculpture that occupies approximately 25 square feet in the gallery’s northwest corner and could easily be too much for Hoffman’s already horny subject to handle. Subtly backlit and standing seven feet at most, “Keep it Up” is a trip onto the surface of an SUV-scale koosh ball. Uniformly-sized, stuffed cotton muslin prongs protrude in all directions from a supporting canvas, erect but heavily drooping. 


Centeno’s fascination with the koosh goes back many years.  As she grapples with her fascination, one can only hope that she finally has the wherewithal to construct a giant version we can all fit under. Something playfully announces from “Keep it Up,” that even the objects that are the most fun on the surface turn out differently when you look at them closely. There is no malice in Centeno’s work, just a wild sense of self, a driving need to explore beyond the average boundaries, and the willingness to perform back-breaking work in order to communicate them to the world. Centeno seems to have the grit to build the water-tower sized koosh, but she just might move onto something else before indulging us.  Building the thing required days and weeks of sewing, and it was finally assembled in situ at the gallery.


The piece has an insistent and undeniable presence. Centeno has a disarming way of calling all of us out with her work, breaking the silence of the foreboding and challenging white gallery walls.  The MFA candidate describes being challenged to consider negative space by her instructors.  The paneling she removed while extricating “The Common Wall” revealed “Wall Chatter” in its wake. Everywhere Centeno looked she seemed to find strange ideas begging to come to life. 

The organ-like objects that Centeno crafts out of oozing foam are the centerpieces of these two works. They play at coming to life, “Common Wall” in its orchid-like attachment to a vertical ship-lap board and its strange ability to support crawling, dangling bits of finery in a seemingly symbiotic relationship with their host. 


Present in the “Wall” works are fresh twists on the Pygmalion theme, but instead of creating the ideal man or woman, Centeno creates ravey little Frankensteins. Centeno’s video “Wall Chatter” features two such creations whose anatomies bear a striking resemblance to Audrey II’s mischievous little offspring. The two fat, colorful little creatures laugh and snicker in an endless loop. The video is well-produced, the anthropomorphic plants jiggle and tremble with their laughter. Half charming, half unnerving, their transformation into semi-sentient and possibly mean-spirited living characters owes much to the tightly controlled stop-motion animation that Centeno engineered to create the short film.


Chubby Crimson Bottoms and Keep it Up are on view at the UNO St. Claude Gallery (2429 St. Claude Ave.) through Feb. 1.

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