FeBland paints the ironies of life in the city

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006

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Photo courtesy of David FeBland
Two Orthodox men contemplate the contrast of their lives with the flashiness of crossing to and from Manhattan by helicopter in FeBland’s ‘‘Path of Escape.”

Click here to enlarge this photo
Photo courtesy of David FeBland
In ‘‘Watching You,” FeBland manages to weave an urban tale, both familiar and uncomfortable, that lures the viewer irresistibly.

David FeBland’s recent paintings of urban subjects are now at the Fraser Gallery. This is the Bethesda gallery’s fifth solo exhibit of the New York-based painter whose impressive international exhibition record is matched by an equally impressive sales record. As some local art bloggers are commenting, FeBland is clearly doing something right.

The paintings, most of fairly modest proportions, fall into three categories: views of rather ordinary looking people struggling to get on with their lives, often in stark contrast to the urban glamour that surrounds them; somewhat darker views of city life, particularly in the subway; and lastly, ironic, even faintly humorous, scenes, which might suggest some ambiguous philosophical commentary. If one lets a nervous laugh escape when viewing a painting like ‘‘Keystone” — a large canvas showing a purse snatching in garish colors and melodramatic gesture — an immediate queasiness about it will follow. This odd sequence is even more pronounced with pictures like ‘‘The Last Cassette,” a strange narrative that involves a pair of bicyclists. The man in the foreground holds up a tape cassette that is coming apart, the tape flying around in the wind. One can identify with the frustration — we’ve all felt it — and the characters in the painting are so like us, the girl looking at her sport watch concerned only with all the time they’re losing.

These works are like mini-mirrors of our contemporary lives that illustrate — as in ‘‘shed light upon” — those uncomfortable feelings that accompany daily life, particularly in the urban ambiance. Analogies to Norman Rockwell come to mind, and in many ways, they are justified. Much as the great American illustrator made images that still typify the pre- and post-WWII era, FeBland’s images capture something of the peculiarity of early 21st century urban life, with all its strangeness, diversity and artificial glitziness. But also like Rockwell, these images don’t address big questions. As the artist admits, they ‘‘are all about the small idea.” They speak directly in a simple vernacular. But unlike Rockwell’s, these narratives are played out in a pictorial world that is ultimately unsettling, even faintly threatening. I believe this tension is the secret of their appeal.

FeBland’s best works are those where the narrative element is strongest. ‘‘Watching You” is a good case in point. The view is into a New York City subway car. Seated on the dark red plastic benches that line the sides of the car is a woman in a low-necked short black dress, hanging crystal earrings and bracelets, high heels, long painted nails and heavy makeup. Her knees press together, hands rest on a small evening purse in her lap and she gazes at the floor. She’s going somewhere. In the corner of the otherwise unoccupied car, a man, the sleaze just oozing out of him, looks furtively over at her. We can tell she knows he is staring at her, but is trying not to let him know. Presto! By this point, FeBland has you.

Also interesting, in a slightly more subtle way, are images such as ‘‘Laws of Physics” and ‘‘Path of Escape.” The former, in more gritty tones than many, shows what appears to be an artist standing in front of an office building packing up dozens of canvases. The latter shows two Orthodox Jewish men in shirtsleeves and yarmulkes, standing between the picture plane and a tall wrought iron fence. Beyond the fence is what appears to be a helipad near the edge of the river, with helicopters taking off toward the skyline in the distance. The implication here is obvious — the men are trapped in their Brooklyn community and are contemplating what escape might be — but the characterization is superlative.

Works like these account for the analogies that have been made between FeBland and the early 20th century New York Eight or Ash Can School painters like Robert Henri and John Sloan. In fact, with regard to subject and technique, there are affinities with these artists, many of whom were artist-reporters, and like FeBland, commercial illustrators turned painters. FeBland’s neo-impressionist style is most reminiscent of Henri, where forms have pointy ends, and sharp edges are blended in feathery strokes. Like the Eight, FeBland is not painting from direct observation; his works are all invented and finished in the studio, often from memory. And, also like them, FeBland’s strength is in depicting figures in motion and portraying the psychological nuances of gesture.

But unlike Henri, whose views of New York streets were dominated by the city’s gray tonality, FeBland’s canvases are full of saturated color. There is a strange prevalence of pinks, yellows and light blues in these paintings — perhaps more Miami than New York. And often the backgrounds are covered with neo-expressionist drips and splashes (like ‘‘Carefree,” a small painting of a young woman walking with an iPod-like device stuck in her ears). Sometimes this play of paint is distracting to the image. It calls attention to itself to the detriment of the narrative. FeBland writes of ‘‘falling deeply in love with the act of painting” and speaks of this disjuncture as a ‘‘subversive” trick ‘‘to seduce” the viewer into his pictures. And, his painting can be lyrical at times. See, for example, the wedge of deep blue depicting the office building fountain in ‘‘Plaza” that forces the working types taking their cigarette breaks into the small dark area above.

Not as seductive visually as they are illustratively, I see more of the reporter’s coolness in FeBland. There are no didactic social messages here, beyond a feeling for the way men and women adapt to the alienating conditions of the modern city.