Visual Arts - Still life

Mental landscapes perplex at Timothy Tew

Román Paláu's oil paintings feature Holstein cows, songbirds, dogs, sheep and stags, all posed like the most obedient children at the Olan Mills portrait studios. His richly colored, breathlessly still paintings emphasize the theatrical over the real. Crescent moons, sand dunes, tree branches and eating vessels like cups and bowls recur as visual motifs, giving his paintings a consistent personalized iconography with hints of fate, mortality and psychological blockages.

"A History of Lost Things" is a typical example. A portrait of a stocky sheep is framed in the painting's dead center beneath a crescent moon, which hangs like a mobile over a baby's crib. Palau's animals seem to wait patiently for their cue — like the brown bird that also shares the painting's space and cocks his head to the left, as if letting us know something meaningful lurks nearby.

Palau creates intensely formal works, but they're infused with the saving grace of wit. His paintings reference an enormous span of art history, from the startling realism of Flemish painting; flat, decorative Elizabethan art; De Chirico's dream landscapes; and later surrealists like Magritte and Dali. A peculiar kind of warmth defines the charming paintings, due in part to their rich palette of inky blues and scarlets, but also because of the enchanted scenes he creates, which evoke mystical storybooks and seem rooted in the artist's magic realism-inflected Mexican heritage.

In "Do You Remember Me?" a man with a distinguished Roman profile and the bug eyes of Peter Lorre is framed against a blue-gray horizon, a perfect photorealist flower in his buttonhole. The portrait has a not-quite-real dimension, and the scene is given an additional infusion of weird in the apple that sits in the painting's foreground, separate from the man, who is cut off in his own pictorial universe. That apple serves to question the reality of that man and whether he is "real," or whether the apple isolated against a beige, featureless background and casting a shadow is "real." The many stage-like settings and frames within frames that bracket Palau's work indicate, yet again, an element of presentation and fiction. His work is as much about acknowledging painting's artifice as anthing.

Palau's paintings dwell consistently on nature, but his nature is caught in aspic, a tableau vivant acted out on a stage set. That stage set is, of course, painting, where anything can occur. Going hog wild with that desire to fiddle with beauty and truth, Palau often accents his paintings with capricious touches. In "Birth Music," a curling red ribbon (a constant visual trope in his paintings) floats in the sky above a richly colored bird. In "La Cordera," reality takes another significant nosedive. A lovely cow gazes contemplatively out from under its proscenium, like Hamlet mid-soliloquy. But where the animal's hindquarters would be is, instead, a scalloped midsection and then ... nothing, as if the cow's rear end took a leave of absence.

You can't help but psychoanalyze the sweet and weird little worlds Palau creates. It's hard not to read these paralyzed, bisected animals as expressions of the artist's own peculiar state of mind — a mental landscape filled with opaque "clues."

The paintings are not illustrative, but confounding, although in the gentlest way imaginable, like a magic act where you relish the opportunity to be fooled. Rather than a surrealist translating the bizarre rhapsodies of the subconscious to canvas, Palau instead seems pleased to merely play with our desire to turn to paintings for answers.