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Nudes and Notions

Jesus, a Disbeliever's Vision: Oil on canvas by Jerome Witkin

Alan Miller defies Puritans while Jerome Witkin questions true believers at Spratt Gallery

By Ann Elliott Sherman

A SHOW OF old-fashioned odalisques by De Anza College figure-drawing teacher Alan Miller titled La Muse, with each work distinguished by a number, is without doubt (as gallery proprietor Fred Spratt himself put it) "politically incorrect."

Although I'm not one to get behind any neopuritanical censorship, the technically accomplished, languorous nudes are, by and large, so typical of the genre--the model sprawled dozily atop disheveled bedclothes, there for the taking yet an unattainable ideal--that they are either laughable or astounding, depending on your point of view. It's as if the last few decades never happened. There's even an appearance by an exotic, still-bangled "gypsy," framed by a keyhole arch.

Such trite poses make it hard not to attribute a certain curmudgeonly obstinacy to Miller: drawing nudes is what I damn well want to do, he seems to be saying. And he does it beautifully, make no mistake, giving some a faint wash of warming, earthen tones punctuated by magenta spatters.

The carefully calligraphed foreign phrases Miller pens at the bottom of his reveries up the belligerence quotient, adding a further layer of pretentiousness or witless humor. A view of the model on knees and elbows, as if preparing for rear entry, features a French reference to a dog howling. Voulez-vous acheter des cartes postales, sailor?

The drawing that avoids the cliché and opens up the genre is, probably not coincidentally, the work chosen by Spratt for the exhibition poster. Here, the woman is on her hands and knees with a rag, glancing over her shoulder as though interrupted while cleaning. Instead of languishing as a passive reflection of projected desire, she is engaged in a prosaic activity.

We might not all do our chores in the nude, but at least the woman has some connection to reality, disrupting the odalisque conceit. Convention is also subverted in that the woman's attitude makes the viewer more or less irrelevant, whereas in the usual ode to male fantasy, the viewer/artist's attention is really the point of the whole pose.

THE MAIN attraction at the galleries is the first in a new series of narrative works by Syracuse University art professor and painter Jerome Witkin. The J. Narrative (J. as in Jesus) examines alternative perspectives on just who the man was/is, an exploration Witkin is perhaps particularly well-suited to undertake, given his Jewish/Italian Catholic heritage.

The studies include a slice of contemporary urban tragedy, Beggar in Sunlight and Shadow. The pictorial dynamic is driven by a diagonal shadow that splices the canvas and draws the eye to the beggar, whose outreached arm extends a line begun by a toppled trash can into the sunlight in an angled counterpoint. Those who saw Witkin's Holocaust panels will recognize his method for focusing attention on telling details.

In the study Ghost of Jesus and 13th Century Sculptor, those diagonals are replaced by the curving trajectory of the studio's arch, echoed in the color dynamics of stone gray giving way to terra cotta at the center. The sculptor works in that center, oblivious to the phantom figure in the foreground at the end of the gray rainbow.

The next study, Jesus and the 13th Century Sculptor, accomplishes narrative development through a stair-step sectioning of the canvas, with the rest of the rectangular surface blacked out. A shaggy-haired Jesus looks on at the hardworking artist, hands in the pockets of his Dockers. A red flower in his lapel is the only subtle indication that the unassuming figure might not be, say, a college professor.

This view of Christ as an ineffectual bystander rendered mythic through the engines of culture is given full spin in the first of a planned trilogy of mural-sized canvases: Jesus, a Disbeliever's Vision. The 15-foot panel is divided into irregular thirds. On the far left, a man with Hasidic tendrils, close-cropped hair and beard, wearing nondescript, casual clothes is studying a road map in front of a whitewashed, boarded-up storefront. This lost innocent is apparently oblivious to imminent danger, but all the shadows point to a dark figure about to wield a brick and a chain saw.

The rat poised on the curb sees dinner coming; its running buddies in the street lead the viewer to the next part of the triptych, which reiterates the stair-step layout. At the base of the "stairs," rodents topple a regal Madonna from a table in the 13th-century sculptor's workroom. Centermost, the artist turns from making a crucifix to look us balefully in the eye, a wooden cross on the workbench seeming to rest upon his shoulder. To the sculptor's right, we see what has become of the clueless traveler. He stands dazed, unable to return our gaze directly, arms missing from his sleeves.

The angular shadows upcast by lanterns on the sculptor's floor lead the eye to the top section of the panel, which brings us full circle, revealing what was going on in the alley while Jesus tried to get his bearings. A crude wooden ladder leans against the back of another building directly behind the one where Jesus is about to meet his fate. Parallel stark shadows cast by the ladder carry our attention up, up, into the heavens and right off the canvas. In the near distance, shadowy figures queue up at the neighboring building; the receding perspective culminates in the punch line of a barely discernible fire at a distant office tower.

In the doubter's view, the savior of the human race couldn't even find his way to a burning building, let alone save himself. Part 2, a believer's account, will be shown early next year in San Francisco at Larry Evans Fine Art.

Witkin's portraits of unconventionally striking, older women are a welcome tonic to Miller's pictorials, with genuine emotion or presence making for real, human qualities. In particular, Her Argument With Nature shows astute insight into human psychology. The fears of an expectant mother of a toddler with a visible congenital defect regarding her unborn child's health are rendered in allegorical terms. There is a truth content in this work beyond the mother's reflexive reach for her son while still engaged in the face-to-face confrontation with the specter--the models were Witkin's wife, Lisa, and their young son, who was born with immunodeficiencies.

La Muse and The J. Narrative, Part l run through June 29 at Frederick Spratt Gallery, 920 S. First St., San Jose. (408/294-1135)

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro

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