Somewhere along his path, while growing up in his native Utah or later, studying illustration, painting, and graphic design at the prestigious Pacific Northwest College of Art, Anthony Granato acquired a genuinely idiosyncratic approach to making art. It’s not unusual for an artist to seek out vintage frames that can be adapted to dressing up works before they go on sale, but Granato has built his process around the market in these second-hand frames. He inverts the conventional, centrifugal progress that proceeds from idea to painting to frame, and with it he alters the purist notion that artists begin with preordained themes (landscape, portrait, still life), invite the real world in as reference (subject matter), and climax in a boundary (frame) that formally separates the elevated artwork from mundane reality. In Granato’s canvases, where ornament serves as counterpoint to nature, the frame as much as becomes the artist’s muse, inspiring him to work centripetally, in a range of mediums, until he arrives at the work’s center and, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, knows it for the first time.
Of course no technique alone, and certainly not one that is not evident in the final result, can compel a viewer to overlook shortcomings in the finished painting. It’s still important to reach a personal decision about it. On first viewing, then, all the works in this show exhibit kinship with a popular trend in recent academic painting. Whether to remind viewers that it is a painting, an attenuated rather than a direct encounter with nature, or simply to indulge the modern freedom to appropriate any pre-existing, historical style, many of today’s artists deliberately combine contrasting approaches to representation in a single work. Photo-realism may strive against abstraction, or expressionist brushwork may erupt around mechanically-produced, perhaps even printed-and-collaged passages. In Granato, these impulses display a characteristic pattern: the ornamental elements, those that may echo the decorative function of the frame, are rendered with a high degree of precision. The nature studies and figures that overlay them are presented in a more painterly and naturalistic fashion. There may be a philosophical sentiment present: the idealized plumes, bead and chain courses, and period typography that form the backgrounds are all human creations, capable of at least appearing to be perfect, while the insects, animals, and humans who interrupt them are alive and inherently disruptive of any effort to impose order. Or the artist’s impulse may be more biographical, with his background in the history of mark-making serving as a context for his personal observations.
Because the dates of the individual works are coded (each canvas bears a wax seal, the design of which represents the year of its making) it’s impossible to tell if the range of subjects and their treatments represent an evolution on the artist’s part, or just the range of his personal icons. Rhinoceroses appear several times, as do both birds and winged insects. The human figures are all female, usually nude, but sometimes also winged and, in “Silence and Archetype,” with their skeletons revealed in place of their skins. Wallpaper patterns and antique signage form the grounds, but linear ornaments may lie closer to the illusory surface, trapping the subject in a shallow, interior space. In fact, the technique is solid, classical-looking though grounded in multi-media methods. Taken in totality, these are dynamic works, not about to lie down peacefully on the canvas or in the viewer’s awareness. Those who can not only accommodate, but revel in a medley of visual references, historical approaches, and thematic content need never want for something new to discover, even in a familiar work.
Dichotomy, works by Anthony Granato, is at Charley Hafen Gallery through July 15.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.