Presidential Poison

Alfred Quiroz Takes On The High And Mighty At Davis Dominguez Gallery.

By Margaret Regan

ACCUSTOMED AS WE'VE become to all Monica all the time, it's a shock to find no Monica, none of the time, in Alfred Quiroz's suite of paintings of presidential scandals.

To be sure, there's a Bill Clinton painting in Quiroz's presidential rogues gallery, part of a three-person exhibition called Face to Face at Davis Dominguez Gallery. But "The Pot Party" is from an old Clinton file. Bathed in the weird orange half-light of marijuana bacchanals of days gone by, this neon-hued oil on canvas features a swinging '70s Bill. Sporting a head of blond curls (Note to the Quiroz research department: Is this hair historically accurate?), Bill is indeed inhaling, so much so that he's snorting small clouds of smoke right out his ears. He's cavorting with a décolleté blonde, but it's hard to tell whether she's Gennifer Flowers. The face of yesterday's girl has been so obliterated by the ripe features of Clinton's more recent paramour that we can scarcely remember her.

Review Quiroz, a UA painting prof, is renowned for his fiery indictments of evils throughout the history of the New World. With all the fury of an Old Testament prophet, he turns his wrath on debacles from the Spanish conquest of the Americas to the U.S. fiasco in Vietnam. Working in an inimitable faux-cartoon style, he ratchets his colors up to lurid and pushes his caricatures to extreme. His work is not always easy to like, but one has to respect his commitment to deflating cherished history-book myths, an uncommercial project if there ever was one.

This painter's work is so fierce, and so pointed, that it's disappointing not to have an astringent Quirozian explication of Zippergate. He does nevertheless offer up piquant analyses of misdeeds by three other presidential icons: to wit, Ronald Reagan ("Da Grate Kommie-Nuke-Ater," Quiroz calls him), John F. Kennedy and Thomas Jefferson, recently in the news.

"Thomas Jefferson Sows the Seeds" takes our third president to task for his liaison with the enslaved Sally Hemmings, the half-sister of his late wife. The pair, whose descendants recently provided incontrovertible DNA proof of their coupling, stand in the lush fields of Virginia, architect Jefferson's glorious home, Monticello, looming on the horizon. They're a kind of Adam and Eve of multicultural America, this stiff white gentleman and curvy black woman, and Quiroz pushes the metaphor by having Jefferson scatter some seeds in the furrowed earth.

As a matter of fact, their union might make a fine emblem for the birth of the diverse American nation--except for the distressing knowledge that we bring to it. This is the man, after all, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and owned a plantation's worth of his fellow human beings. And for all our DNA evidence, we'll never know what Hemmings thought of Jefferson, as a de facto husband and the father of her children, or as a legalized rapist.

"Ask Not" deals with sex too, but it's less morally complicated than the Jeffersonian kind. JFK nowadays seems more like an old-fashioned, slightly embarrassing playboy on the order of Hugh Hefner. In the Quiroz painting, an oil on oak panel, visions of sex literally dance in JFK's gigantic head. Marilyn Monroe's arm doubles as his nose, somebody else's bare bottom is his chin, a dusky beauty blends into his wavy hair. Somehow, though, Quiroz can't summon up much venom for the philandering saint of latter-day idealism. Indeed, an image of Jackie's blood-stained pink suit hovers above the scene like a transmogrified Virgin of Guadalupe.

When we arrive at the Reagan painting, we realize what Quiroz was saving his wrath for. An oil on mahogany carved into a circle some 12 feet in diameter, the painting puts Reagan's head at the bull's eye of a giant target. The Great Communicator may be old now, impossibly wrinkled, his eyes closed, but he's still responsible for his sins.

In the first circle around his face he's still an innocent, a movie actor in black and white, playing a soldier, a bon vivant, a cowboy. But in the outer circle, more evil, like Dante's deeper circles of hell, Reagan metamorphoses into a corrupt president. Stacks of dollar bills trail his every move, and in his wake are impoverished homeless, blown-up soldiers, savings-and-loan swindlers. A Middle Eastern potentate shoves guns up the bowels of an American solider, presumably a reference to the illegal arms for hostages deal. Creepy Central American killers smile at their handiwork, the murders of Indians and peasants whose deaths were subsidized by the Reagan administration. With crimes as horrific as these--all unimpeachable, apparently--JFK's amours and Clinton's tokes, and even Clinton's analysis of "is," pale into venial sins.

ANDREW POLK, HEAD of the UA art department, has created some giant heads of his own, Bosch-like grotesques that match Quiroz's in intensity.

"Digital drawings," printed out large in black and white, are nightmarish heads filled with horrors multiplied infinitely by the computer. Hordes of little wooden heads burst out of the larger skull in "Pierced Skin Trophy." "Aging Avarice Inner Theatre" is another ugly head in profile; inside this one, dozens of wooden artist's maquettes lie atop each other. With their arms and legs deployed in all directions, they look like victims of a brutish massacre.

It's a bit of a relief to come to the more gentle work of Robert Royhl, a UA-trained artist who paints in oil and egg tempera and Japanese mineral pigments. Now a professor in Montana, Royhl works in a vaguely Asian style, building up layers of transparencies and rendering faces with liquid delicacy. He draws likenesses from life but his colors are his own. The lovely "Saiyin" is a portrait of a woman in pale purple, amber, blue and greens. There are two sensitive portraits of the artist's father. The old man is in profile in an egg tempera work, colored in the same tints as "Saiyin," with bold lines atop the washes. In a colored pencil drawing, he's simpler, more stripped down, more ready to leave this life. With a few deft lines, the son has captured the open-mouthed, bony face of a man who will soon see death.

Face to Face, an exhibition of work by Alfred Quiroz, Andrew Polk and Robert Royhl, continues through Friday, January 15, at Davis Dominguez Gallery, 154 E. Sixth St. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information call 629-9759. TW

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