The current 12 x 12 exhibition features “Into the Void: The Ballad of The Martyr as Told by Ingres,” a painting installation by Michael Langlois and Robert Davis. The painters met at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and have since worked in collaboration, each artist contributing seamlessly to a single painting. The group of paintings here constitutes an elliptical story that opens with a portrait of Ingres, the French Neo-Classical painter noted for his perfectionist hand. Davis and Langlois could be Ingres’ protégés, each upholding the tradition of precisionist painting. Here, though, Ingres’ eyes are closed and he’s rendered in black-and-white. He is sleeping or dead.
Three additional works fill out the narrative. On two canvases and a wall painting Langlois and Davis drop references to contemporary Palestinian identity, the band Soundgarden and an Apple computer screensaver. The Palestinian woman, identified as such by a wall label, peers across the room with photorealistic eyes. Her cheeks glow with oil paint. Her gaze catches the far wall, painted with lyrics of a Soundgarden tune translated into Farsi, in luminous gold calligraphy on turquoise. The final painting depicts a pastoral landscape tinged with nauseas green, which turns out to be the screensaver. The artists have gone to great lengths to represent the digital picture in their photorealistic style.
Readers of Arabic script will approach the text (and, by proxy, the exhibition?) from right to left, whereas English readers will read it instinctively left to right. Will they converge in the middle? Will they find peace or pregnant pause in the screensaver? Ingres is present but cannot bear witness. He wouldn’t like a screensaver to hold so much significance, but there it is, and it does. The painters, now technically proficient, seem at odds with the usefulness of their craft, but they employ it with renewed power.
Effective political art is needed now as ever. The presentation here, however, is perhaps bogged-down by over-explanatory wall labels of the curatorial variety. Maybe political art is confusing because politics is, too. Truth often resides behind lacquered layers and it gets lost in translation. (Ian Epstein)
Michael Langlois and Robert Davis show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., through September 27.