Painting My Bloody Valentine

Gideon Bok’s analogous responses at USM Gorham
March 19, 2008 12:09:24 PM
MASTERWORK: "The Brief but Epic Battle
Between the Great Jones and Little Bermuda."

Thump! The needle hits the record with an abrasive scratch and then the music begins. Any vinyl enthusiast will insist that listening to an LP, hisses and pops and all, simply sounds better, warmer, and more true to the artist’s intentions.

It’s not their imagination. Digital music, whether it’s a CD or an MP3, is the ultimate in simulacra — a cheap high to the listening connoisseur because, on an analog recording, the actual soundwaves of Neil Young hitting that high D note are faithfully reproduced, whereas the downloadable version mimics the same note with sewn-together bits of data that are close enough, like building the Arc de Triomphe out of Legos and believing it looks curved.

University of Southern Maine artist-in-residence Gideon Bok, as a painter, inhabits this contemporary milieu with awareness of both the postmodern demands of a simulated world and the classical desires of a society that is not ready to throw away its turntables. Bok’s medium-to-large scale oil paintings depict with relentless attention the goings-on of his studio spaces over the years. Painterly reproductions of the space are composed with thin applications of rich, warm tones to form dripping walls while the baseboards are rendered in thick sweeping gestures to form a choppy sea of color in which people, paintings, LP-record sleeves, and beer bottles drop anchor.

"Analog" | paintings by Gideon Bok | at the art gallery, USM campus, Gorham | through April 6 (closed March 23-31) | 207.780.5008
While Bok’s work evokes the cumbersome heft of traditional painting, his subject matter is an ephemeral time-scape of sundry activities, packed to the gills with semiotic signs that (consciously or otherwise) communicate a lifestyle of macho activity. Motorcycles, beer empties, the right record for the moment, and friends playing musical instruments are all rendered not as faithful reproductions but as oblique signifiers that, taken together, suggest Gideon Bok is having himself a time. That time becomes the subject of the painting, an inferred point of recognition wherein the viewer is asked to tie together the various pop-culture components and read the message that this guy can not only paint but, much like the rock musicians he references in his paintings, must be pretty cool.

“MBV Loveless on Vinyl (Mary Bok)” speaks to this marriage of conditional cultural knowledge and a highly personal vocabulary. The studio is dark, primarily illuminated by a monitor screen at which a woman hovers near the computer, and a clip light highlights a mandala wall-painting. In a dark blue sea of floor rests the iconic image of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album, considered one of the greatest of the ’90s. Does the album’s hypnotic breakthrough sound echo the mandala on the wall, or does the album title reference the woman in the composition? It’s only as much our business as Bok wishes to share with us, keeping his cards close but playing through the hand in an enigmatic way that keeps you watching the game.

As much as these signifiers carry considerable cultural weight to the initiated, they are empty without the actual ground of the painting. No matter how much I love "Loveless," I gravitate to technical qualities of “The Brief but Epic Battle Between the Great Jones and Little Bermuda” much more. This is a masterwork where Bok gets his signature perspective and loosely styled rendering just right. Another opus, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, is featured prominently in the foreground. Dylan’s canonized enigmatic stare on that album cover is echoed by a friend of Bok’s sitting on the couch in the center of the composition featuring a gang of people drinking wine, taking in a television show while an acoustic guitar sits unplayed on an easy chair. This epic battle is, apparently, televised. Is this person a Mr. Jones-esque character as described in the Dylan song? The multiplicity of cultural references provided by the artist paradoxically create a blank slate on to which the viewer can project.

Whether it’s Dylan’s face on the record sleeve or a friend’s simulated stare, the viewer sees the details of neither. Like the neurological activity of memory, we are provided with rough dabs of paint from a palette knife and are expected to fill in the blanks. We cross-reference the popular image of Dylan as part of an ever-changing sea of memories. His glare is an easy substitute for the friend’s stare — we construct the image while Gideon Bok paints the change.

Ian Paige can be reached at .


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