By Jessica Dawson

Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, October 22, 2010

Galleries readers may remember the love letter I penned to James Rieck back in August, when I saw his wry paintings done in monochromatic grisaille, including one rather sexy portrait of a Weber grill, in a Gallery Four group exhibition in Baltimore. Some of you even trekked to see it.

Now the carless and the lazy need not sweat to see Rieck, 45, who shows five paintings through the end of this month at Hamiltonian Gallery on U Street. But his recent efforts -- less consumer critique, more mica -- have complicated our relationship.

It's hard to love his new strategy of adding bits of shiny mica to his canvases. His surfaces glitter distractingly, like iridescent eye shadow at a lunch meeting -- not horrible, just out of place. I'm not sure what the shimmer adds to his grandly scaled painting of a wolf skin rug; it's a Brothers Grimm kind of image, made hallucinogenic with vertiginous perspective.

The shiny flecks distract from a twisted little canvas called "Judith," which is a tightly cropped homage to Artemisia Gentileschi's signature canvas, "Judith Slaying Holofernes." Rieck zoomed in on Judith's hand grasping the knife hilt and came up with a picture that evokes a phallus or pudenda almost at the same time. I love the bizarreness of this painting, but mica isn't adding to its success.

Of Rieck's three other canvases, two look like the vampy legs of Vargas girls dressed up in Barbarella and Brunhilde getups, and the third is a nipplish rendition of a shield -- very medieval cheesecake, and not in a good way.

On view alongside Rieck's works are those of University of Maryland student Jonathan Monaghan, 24, an able manipulator of 3D Studio Max, the video-making tool used for car and Coke commercials. That Monaghan's efforts here engage the same strategies as those used to create Coke's animated polar bears only enhances the wryness of his riff.

In Monaghan's HD video "Life Tastes Good" (yes, that's a Coke ad slogan), a massive white bear walks up, lies down and dies a Shakespearean death over three long minutes. He's an imposing figure (5 feet tall when on all fours) with a creepy red eye that's half Pepsi roundel and half Coke emblem. A red Coke ribbon rings his waist. His ghostly white form emerges against a black background as if he's in the gallery with us. His final minutes are a riveting evocation of global warming, capitalist suffocation and grief over a furry creature's agony.

A pigment print depicting an imagined shrine for the white beast accompanies the video. (Monaghan also presents another video-image pair starring a black eagle.) The white-on-white world of the print, called "Open Happiness" (yep, another Coke tagline), could pass for a still from a Matthew Barney film. Here, the bottom half of a bear jaw emerges from the center of a sanctuary like the massive stone at Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock. One part Pantheon and another part Gothic cathedral, it's possibly too easy of a mash-up. But it remains a striking curiosity.

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