Paint it black

Gallery owner Marcia Wood says Atlanta-based painter Alan Loehle's current show has been one of the hardest for her audience to take. To allay viewers' discomfort with images of decapitated pig's heads and the dark mood of the work, she emphasizes the paintings' quality of "hope." Those looking for hope might be better served by television, where the world's problems are resolved in half-hour intervals. Viewers able to stomach something stronger than porridge slurped from a spoon may prefer Loehle's masterful ruminations on the slender cord separating life from death and humanity from debasement.

Menace radiates from Loehle's scenes of ferocious dogs and the hunks of meat sitting at their feet. The artist depicts an earthly existence in distressing slaughterhouse hues of raw, lacerated pinks and reds. His grimy blacks and grays suggest some airless purgatory where forces of good and evil do battle.

Christianity has its holy trinity and Loehle has his triumvirate of flesh: dogs, dwarfs and meat. Those three figures recur in his images. A muscular, sinewy dog drenched in shadow hulks over a section of rib in "Meat II." In "Head," a dwarf standing in the center of a shadowy room contemplates the array of inanimate objects at his feet: baby dolls, a pig's head, and a rubber toy. As in so many of Loehle's other paintings, the dwarf seems to ruminate on a world that grants him the same subhuman status as those objects. The reds and golds and blacks in "Head" suggest a slowly setting sun, a room darkening as some ugly realization settles in. Loehle is aware that it is often the disabled, like the obese, whose physical presence reminds us of our own hated vulnerability and corporeality.

In his current body of work, Loehle also offers small drawings, which echo the sense of frenzied darkness in his paintings, but also suggest an antithetical tack. Several of the drawings feel as if they're from another series altogether, like the quaint image of a terrier seen at street level, strolling with its master down the sidewalk. But such drawings detract from the assured, formal power and intoxicatingly dark mood of the paintings. They are a relief in some ways, but the insights into the darkest anxieties of our existence are far more lasting and important than putting us at ease.Alan Loehle runs through Dec. 4 at Marcia Wood Gallery, 263 Walker St. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 404-827-0030. www.marciawoodgallery.com.

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