Medium Rare

Until a month ago, painter Colin Chillag paid the bills by working as a long-haul trucker and painting during precious downtime. Chillag's recent retirement from hitting the highway to devote himself to making art full-time may be the trucking industry's loss. But it's a definite gain for the art world, which vacillates as to whether painting as a medium is dead or dying on an all-too-regular basis. Chillag is proof that painting still rocks mightily -- and that the longtime Phoenix resident, who is also a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, is a latter-day master of the tenacious medium.

Refusing to be boxed in by any signature style or subject, Chillag swings with bipolar verve from painting as if he were the reincarnation of some 18th-century European landscapist with architectural aspirations to making enormous canvases teeming with strange little vignettes. Even these large canvases are inconsistent in terms of how Chillag approaches oil paint and subject matter.

Empire (2003), one of the show's focal points, is a goofy pastiche of scenarios rendered both in exquisite detail and cartoony simplicity simultaneously reminiscent of R. Crumb, Lari Pittman, William Wylie and Mad magazine. Comic absurdity -- like tiny billboards advertising legal services with "Sue Those Fucking Bastards" and cosmetic surgery with an inanely grinning surgeon probing a female patient under the headline, "There's Something Wrong With Your Face!" -- maintains an odd equilibrium with quietly tragic passages, such as a tiny rendering of an old man slumped on a bed in a shabby room, a dog at his feet keenly watching him, and eerie violence, like images of terrified monkeys being ravaged and devoured by sharks underwater.

In A City in the Desert (2003), the artist grapples with the psychological connections between two desert cities, one of which is obviously Middle Eastern and the other a dead ringer for Phoenix, both of which flourish in an inherently hostile environment. From flat sections of thinly troweled paint and minimalist drawings to gooey gobs of medium pushed, pulled, teased, layered and often stained to create dimensionality, City is a seamlessly surreal, aerial-view meeting of two obviously dissimilar mindsets that aren't really all that different when set side by side.

Chillag religiously carries a camera while traveling and shoots images that appeal to him as potential subject matter, like the industrial facility appearing in Plant (2003) and the foreboding thunderheads resembling a nuclear mushroom cloud in Thunderstorm in the Mojave (2003). One can only speculate as to the artist's real reason for painting the J. Edgar Hoover Building, a luscious, still-pliable concoction of piled and pulled paint that might have been created by some mad cake decorator. Or why he chose to paint a picture of an anonymous family from a discarded Polaroid taken in the '70s, offered free for the taking at an art installation in a nearby gallery. A painter's painter, Chillag offers refreshingly new meaning to that frayed old phrase "painting with a broad brush."

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Kathleen Vanesian