Pastels, floral still lifes, and portraits of babies are about as safe and traditional as visual motifs come — they evoke a cutesy Hallmark aesthetic. But in The Rose Period, a series of paintings and mixed-media drawings on view at Martos Gallery, Los Angeles–based artist Alex Chaves gives these themes new, dimensional life.
The show’s title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Pablo Picasso’s early obsession with reds, oranges, pinks, and earth tones, alludes to the Modernist, post-Impressionist, and Expressionist influences Chaves blends in these canvases. In addition to overt Picasso homages — a harlequin appears in one dreamy landscape — echoes of Egon Schiele show up in moody, bony-shouldered figures, some set amid jungly, Paul Gauguin-esque backdrops.
It’s the texture and riotous color here that makes what could be tired subjects fresh. The application is loose and energetic, never overwrought. The green-faced figure in “Painter” (2016) lifts a disproportionately small, nubbin-like hand, while a chair standing behind him is reduced to a shimmering outline. The paint in “Bedroom” is applied almost like scraps of construction paper, in solid-colored patches. At the center of “Baby Alex Baby,” a self-portrait flanked by two haloed baby Buddhas, is a swath of citron yellow so bright it hurts your eyes. In the many still life paintings of flowers in vases, dappled brushstrokes create rippling movement; wormy bits of clay are used as petals; the word “ROSE” is scrawled repeatedly in a red background. In “Peter,” a male nude, skin is rendered in a kind of camouflage pattern of pinks and yellows.
With all the blossoms and babies, it’s a seasonally appropriate show, but there’s just enough hallucinatory weirdness to offset any sentimentality. In the dreamy, Matisse-like interior “Bedroom,” the floor opens up into a cloudy sky filled with wan green figures; the wiggling walls and bed frame seem to be melting. The characters in these paintings are not skipping, but floating through stoned hazes, into spring.