"> The San Francisco Bay Guardian: The Real Thing | David Tomb

Large numbers of artists fresh out of graduate school nowadays differ from previous generations in that they seem to have no sense of, or even remote curiosity about, the history of art—unless it’s to float some famous image over their own work in smirking irony. Many operate under the illusion that nothing worthwhile could have possibly happened before the advent of Andy Warhol.

Gen Xers who plan to take the art world by storm might note that virtually every great artist has been familiar with antecedents from the near and distant past—all the better for tweaking, transforming, or submerging his or her own milieu. Pablo Picasso was a febrile sponge who soaked up everything he could lay his eyes on: Greco-Roman statuary, Japanese prints, African fetishes, the daily news. Warhol, for his part, rebuffed abstract expressionism’s angst-ridden metaphysical pretensions as he coolly embraced the raw materials of popular culture.

David Tomb: The Subjective Perception has a hipness quotient of zero. It also happens to be one of the strongest exhibitions Bay Area audiences are likely to see this year. At the ripe old age of 36, Tomb is a contemporary practitioner of that most traditional genre—portrait painting. Born in Alameda, the painter moved from the East Bay to New York a few years ago to escape the provincial stigma that has stopped many Bay Area artists dead in their tracks.

While many artists’ 15 minutes expire with the onset of the latest trend, Tomb has spent the past 15 years assimilating stylistic tropes from a pantheon of great portrait painters: Jean Dominique Ingres, Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Alice Neel and Lucien Freud to name a handful. Yet Tomb manages to meld these disparate influences into something distinctly his own. His evolving oeuvre might be thought of as an old-new master palimpsest filled with friends and acquaintances who ricochet across moldy art history.

An anomaly in some respects, the surrealist-tinged Madison (1997) nevertheless sets the stage for two dozen paintings and drawings that follow. Like the faces and figures wedged into smaller claustrophobic spaces, this park scene is heavy with an existential air. Against a crepuscular pink sky and a fleshy foreground of silver-blue clots of pigment, a ghostly figure walks his dog. Schematic trees bend around him with the same rubber-mask malleability characterizing many of Tomb’s heads. As the artist revels in the pleasures of paint itself, multidirectional brushstrokes, racked-over surfaces, and variations in color, texture, and density coalesce into a dynamic visual dialogue wherein flat/abstract and illusionistic/representational elements are locked into a tight-knit tension.

Quite apart from their roles as constructive devices, Tomb’s meandering lines and variegated color patches often detach themselves from a face or figure to take on lives of their own. In the ghostly charcoal drawing Bukowski (1992), for instance, a seated figure’s snoozing body is defined by a skeleton of thick, black, de Kooning-esque whiplash gestures writhing atop the paper’s white void. His Baconesque head, meanwhile, remains the most sculptural element even as it dematerializes into smoky plumes and wispy smears. It’s from this incessant push and pull of compositional shards simultaneously bound together and torn apart that Tomb’s portraits derive much of the oomph.

On the other end of the color spectrum is the devilishly lurid Outtara (1996). The slightly dour face of this purple Buddha portrait is a mask of calm amid Dionysian convulsions of color: lavenders, hot pinks, grape purples, and pulpy black-and-blue skeins. As Tomb’s sober figure confronts us with a scrutinizing yellow eye and tightly pursed lips, thick mortarlike swaths streak across his arm and shoulder blade like the left hook of some blubblegum-brandishing abstract expressionist. A flaming orange goatee and Medusan dreadlocks that wriggle on end like charred electrodes amplify the delightfully infernal atmosphere.

Of all the artists whose presence one senses in the gallery, Freud, Bacon, and Neel loom largest. This is particularly evident in the intimate, salon-style ensemble of eight small portraits. The electric Willie (1996-97) is a cacophony of color. Set against a smoldering acid yellow-green backdrop, his jigsaw face is a coarse sonata or hothouse reds, while a dark blue shirt and a starchy white color act as coolants and counterbalances.

Elsewhere, Bacon’s bent noses and flayed features combine with Freud’s meaty butcher-block skeins and Neel’s supersaturated hues. Such portraits are poised halfway between fauvism and German expressionism: if Tomb, unlike Neel, never fully penetrates the psychic shells of his sitters or is saddled with her pathos-inducing psychodramas, their stress lines are nonethless laid bare. By locating his subjects inside otherwordly color fields loaded with a spiritual charge, Tomb transforms them into meat-and-potato icons.

Lurking nearby on a more earthly plane is a familiar face in the sea of strangers. Local art buffs may recognize a mischievous Robert Johnson (1996). Here the curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, clad in a large black cloak, his barely sketched-out hands folded in front of him, brings to mind a rakish barrister or recently defroncked member of the clergy.

The bespectacled protagonist of the brooding Fiction (1996), on the other hand, is reminiscent of a short-lived chapter in German painting during the 1920s called Die neue sachlichkeit (The new reality). In this Russian roulette vignette, a solitary figure sits holed up in a claustrophobic interior holding a cigarette in his left hand and, apparently contemplating suicide, a revolver in his right. Pregnant with the possibility that his life may go up in smoke at any moment, second-hand smoke curls toward the ceiling like carbon monoxide quote from Van Gogh’s Starry Night turned on its side. (As every aspiring Hollywood scriptwriter knows, the addled Dutchman went out with a bang).

The Subjective Perception takes its place alongside the great Alice Neel show at Mills College a year ago as one of the most exhilarating portrait exhibitions in recent memory. The original works have a palpable presence viewers cannot hope to experience through printed reproductions or cyberspace’s pixelated facsimiles. Though portraiture is passé in some circles, Tomb’s paintings and drawings will remain powerful documents long after Gen X graduates from art school.