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Culture Clash: Edwin Montalvo Remixes the Masters at Kevin Bruk

Street Miami, May 7, 2004

At Kevin Bruk Gallery, Miami artist Edwin Montalvo is working through a voyage of religious discovery and reconciliation with his paintings based on the history of Western art. His works remix the old masters, notably Carravagio, Velazquez, Goya, and Rembrandt, with modern clothing and other anachronisms thrown into crowd scenes populated by refugees from 15th and 16th Century chiaroscuro works.

The inspiration for this series was Montalvo's discovery that he has some Jewish ancestry, and his attempt to reconcile it with his Catholic upbringing. So here we have an artist who is working with heartfelt subject matter, an understanding of traditional forms, and the inventiveness to put a pair of Converses on a figure in a painting that looks like a distant homage to Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son.

I expected to fall in love with this show. Instead, I came away feeling something was wrong. The murky Cinquecento style was familiar enough, but the brushwork was occasionally dry and thin, the drawing was a little scraggly, and the surfaces looked cankered in places. Then I learned these were acrylic paintings. Nothing is wrong with acrylics, but here they looked out of place. These paintings long to be oils, with all of that medium's softness, atmosphere, and correctability.

That said, making acrylics approximate oils is a challenge and most of the results are good, even if these works seem to be a stop on the way to a greater destination. Bruk, I think, has bought early into a promising career.

Montalvo lifts poses, costumes, limbs, and other elements from his extensive library and reassembles them into his own compositions. The paintings are crowded and strained, sometimes to the work's benefit, sometimes not.

One that succeeds nicely is a five-foot canvas entitled Freewill Sacrifice, the aforementioned Rembrandt homage. A young man in blue jeans and Cons holds a knife behind his back as he kneels in front of a bearded elder. One figure is bent over between them, another eats cake while a companion crouches beside him, and a fourth gestures to someone beyond the left edge of the image. The sky behind them is rendered in luminous, neutral blues, with the paint applied in such a manner as to resemble the texture of a heavily glazed, disintegrating oil painting. Atmospheric and ominous with its threatening but unidentifiable narrative, it captures a tense psychology at play in the fields of art history

In Bruk's project room, Gina Ruggeri has adhered her oil-on-cut-mylar paitings directly to the wall. My favorite is Greenfolds, in which a ten-foot wide folded cloth appears to recede into the distance with trompe-l'oeil believability. A grapevine pattern seems to be part of the cloth, but closer inspection reveals that it is superimposed over the illusionistic rendering with no relation to the folds.

Ruggeri's work also includes a cross-lit dirt mound, and two cloud pieces with space-defying patterns painted on them. They simultaneously put forth opposite reminders about their convincing realism and their elegant flatness. Decorative to the core, they are nonetheless a little mind-blowing.

Word count: 507

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