Streamlined and elegant, San Francisco's Modernism Gallery has established itself as a forum for intriguing, complex juxtapositions of work by two equally strong and yet widely divergent contemporary artists. The result is a thought-provoking dialogue between the artwork itself, as if engaged in a tango of ideas and images, resulting in a passionate, tense cohesion. The odd pairing of dark, disturbing paintings that fuse realism and formalism by German artist Gottfried Helnwein and the vibrant abstract canvases merging impressionism and expressionism by California painter Naomi Kremer, exemplifies Modernism's curatorial trademark of compelling confluence. Upon entering the gallery, a large untitled canvas by Helnwein assaults the viewer, depicting a bandaged little girl falling backwards amidst a melee of uniformed policemen and a rowdy crowd of men. While the initial reaction is one of horror, upon closer inspection, the viewer notices that the child looks oddly comfortable, as if engaged in a dreamy state of sleep or hypnosis, oblivious to what surrounds her. This eerie scene, painted in Helnwein's signature all blue palette, sets the tone of these paintings' thematic vortex: a provocative study of the interplay of human innocence and aggression. Helnwein repeatedly incorporates images of Adolf Hitler posing, grandfather like, with children in several paintings. However, these aren't the pieces that most incite the viewer to draw their own conclusions as provoked by the artist's dark wit. The only two titled canvases, White Defence League and Late Regret, again featuring children alongside radical racists, are actually more haunting than the Hitler paintings - precisely because they are much more mysterious. Kremer's paintings also present profound mystery. Her palette and brushstrokes immediately recall those of Monet; traces of Jackson Pollock are also evident in her technique as well. The canvases recall natrue: IVA6 suggests the sensual energy of leaves turning in autumn, while Greening hints at the rhythm and beauty of grass swaying in a summer breeze. Yet the viewer is constantly aware of Kremer's meticulous brushwork and relentless obsession with building layer upon layer of paint and gesture. Ultimately, her focus is on abstraction itself and the large scale of Kremer's work lends a sense of drama to her technique.
This is a show that confronts and haunts. Beyond the fact that both artists create wildly dramatic work that causes nearly instinctual reactions in the viewer - anger and confusion surrounding Helnwein's work, and raw aesthetic pleasure from Kremer's - they have achieved, respectively and concurrently in this exhibition, a communication of the power of mystery, and its ability to move us.