The Self-Reliant Classicist: An Introduction to the Art of John Abel Print

war-criminals(San Diego Art Institute Press December 2008)

Finally, at what may be the early late middle stage of John Abel’s career, we have, with his show at Earl & Birdie Taylor Library in Pacific Beach, thirty years’ worth of the fifty-three-year-old’s paintings, drawings, and graphics. And what a magnificent catalog of Abel’s oeuvre the San Diego Art Institute press has published—the incisive work of a caricaturist, draftsman, and painter whose discipline is classical, expressionistic, and pugnaciously self-confident.

At UC Riverside in the 1970s, one professor’s masturbatory mania for conceptual art made him angry and quit. (Abel still disdains any art that avoids the time-tested strategies of beauty, composition, and meaning.) Wandering out of academe for good and rediscovering Drucker, he found his calling as a commercial illustrator. From 1984 to 1994, he did hundreds of assignments for weekly rags among them the San Diego Reader. Until one day the phone rang and he was told his skill was passe: they were going digital.

In 1997, Abel had an agonizing accident; an aneurysm on his spine ruptured. Though the surgery was successful, he was confined to bed for months. His nerves frazzled, and his spirit flat-panned. Only exercise—years of sloughing through physical therapy—helped. Eventually he got his feet to quit dragging and his right hand to quit shaking. Today Abel drives to his lecture on art history at community colleges and has time to stay bivouacked in his rural Campo home, pursuing what he calls "the fussiness of the conscientious beginner."

Though Abel says self-expression is buried behind his everyday subjects, I find his temperament—passionate, committed, beat—fully present and consistent. Look at the theatrical banality of his politically charged portraits, Pedophile and Murderer and War Criminals. These acerbic pieces are infused with Abel’s ablest irony. On one hand, the calloused faces, the sheepish hands, the heavy uniforms, carry impenetrability: showy, brutal shells. In War Criminals, those virulent purple highlights transform the decorous into the sinister. (Abel cites the "barbed-wire" emotion of the German Max Beckmann as a major influence on his portraiture.)

On the other hand, exposing the implacable garb and pose of the heinous releases the inner demon. Their crime is no masquerade. Soldierly type yields to artist psychology: what’s been done to or in the name of that self rings clear. With an expressionist’s certainty, Abel provokes the mad, the worn-out, the fake and frail to show themselves: his pith is equal, not secondary, to his subject.

Like Cezanne, Abel lets mass and form dominate. Mass is power. Note that in most figures he’s pierced the core: that hell realm of the abject, bullies or bullied. What we know about ourselves from Abel is how we appear to others, as much hidden as apparent. Party Girls, for example, plays with the ambiguity of submerged and surfacing power: the self latent and held under contending with the persona dressed up and exposed.

In Abel’s landscapes, the formal thrust is remarkable. Study the foregrounding of a late-afternoon blazing-white glare on fence, house awning, and shed in American De Stijl, one of his most muscular pieces. The painting’s many dark spaces invite us to see around those white planes. But Abel’s no tease. He paints forces whose desire to obliterate is also restrained. At the same time that Abel records a scene’s brassy command, he softens its claim. In the end, the composition is both elevated and made vulnerable by his construction.

What Abel paints of the world is how things remain past ripening. Whether tool shed or face, truck front or sky, the point is to constitute aging. Places and people have already bloomed, been worked over and worked out. Their lastingness is familiar and inscrutable. His talent is to grasp the end-game of life—its rust, its gathered storm, its dumped dream.

The phenomenal etching Descanso features a bulbous-hulled truck, whose fenders and wheel hulls, hood and headlights, embody, like a wizened prizefighter, the road taken. One truck is every truck, still conveying its usefulness, angling out on the road from the hardscrabble farm and craggy mountain home. Aesthetic meets axle: Abel’s fearless vehicles, with flag-like glory, even pride, push out their boastful chests.

Other solidities include Barrett Junction—a fifties-era Chrysler with that chummy faithfulness every Abel-posed transport declares. His settings gather little ancillary. He eschews natty detail for formal gravity, rejects abstraction for representation. Still, Abel’s a fist-shaking contemporary, a minimalist who heightens the lived animation of objects in their place and time. Each piece has about it a striking presence: the self or object alive now but with the solidity of the ancient.

Abel’s textures are thick, rough, often enfolded: see the bunchiness and cross-angling of planes in the centerpiece of Triptych No. 2: Job, Sick Woman, and Former Rodeo Queen. I love the crumpled, rickety, thorny quality to these faces. In Queen, little boats of gray and white stipple her neck and chest. Abel’s quilted surfaces offer paradoxes of balance, floating surface and foundational depth. Linger on the rhythmic layering in his drawings and etchings. Pocked and flecked, scratchy and dense, polyphonically loud, they are strangely meditative, inciting a hand-over-mouth hush.

Does Abel identify himself with traditional west coast painters? He has some affinity for last century’s California Impressionists (his favorite is William Wendt), a group he says are misnamed: "Impressionists dissolve form; California painters solidify form." Abel treasures the preserved vistas of San Diego county’s back country, which for him opposes the coastal swarm of "traffic jams and trashy mini-malls." Staying overlong in the urban melee spurs Abel to finish talking, jangle his keys, and head back to Campo’s reserve, where, with the tenacity of Thoreau, he continues painting a world that relinquishes, to the self-reliant eye, all it has been.

New: January 2010. The Last Word: Sixty-One American Epitaphs Conceived and Illustrated by J. D. Abel. Reviewed by Thomas Larson.