Larry Madrigal: How Dare We Now Live
Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles
October 28 through December 4, 2021
By LITA BARRIE, November 2021
Larry Madrigal’s paintings capture humorous moments taken directly from his own domestic life with a candor so unpretentious, it makes the viewer feel as though they are right inside his messy living room, kitchen or bedroom where silly accidents and slip-ups occur. He shares his life as a Latinx Gen Xer, a father and a husband in all its awkwardness without any filters or barriers, which makes his paintings very accessible and relatable. Even in an embarrassing moment, we know he is trying to do his best even though he does not know what he should do - unlike the earlier generation of the benevolent patriarch in Father Knows Best.
For Madrigal, the painting process is a way to make sense of his real life where he can question what it all means, and he includes the viewer in this conversation by using the pronoun “we” in his titles. The title of his current exhibition How Dare We Now Live could mean we should not be here at this moment, but his paintings are about the actuality of living, and we could be anyone. Madrigal has an uncommon knack for framing domestic scenes as frozen moments where every detail contributes to the narrative. Doors and windows are always open, so we can see what is happening in another room or outside. Toys and clothes scattered in the foreground, dishes in the kitchen sink, a dog in another room, or a child playing outside can create unexpected interruptions that disrupt the rhythm of everyday life. No area of the canvas is left blank, so that there is always a sense of life going on around and we are invited right into the middle of it all.
Although Madrigal portrays awkward situations, he is obviously at ease using the medium of oil paint. His technical flair for wet-into-wet painting leaves evidence of the hand of the artist in confident loose brushstrokes which have an assuredness that creates a dramatic contrast with the precariousness of the subject matter. Madrigal uses old master painting techniques like chiaroscuro to create strong contrasts of light and shade to imbue quotidian scenes with an aura of reverence that recalls medieval religious paintings. The tactile nature of Madrigal’s paintings is haptic which creates a sense of immediacy and gives an illusion of substance. Madrigal takes painting very seriously, but he never takes himself too seriously. Even as an American-Mexican living the suburban life in Phoenix, Madrigal is anything but machismo and delights in exposing his vulnerability in embarrassing moments which makes his comedic paintings more endearing because humility is usually missing in male art.
Madrigal’s conviction that painting can open up a space for us to better understand our relationship with the world is not an inculcated belief but one he discovered by himself, having begun drawing portraits when he was ten years old. As he told me, “during graduate school, I had ambitions to work with certain ‘important’ subject matter (whatever that means) through figuration. But since my daughter was a newborn at the time, my attention kept returning to the everyday mess and struggle - until I finally surrendered. It would have been dishonest of me to force work that completely ignored everything I was really thinking about and going through. So themes of responsibility, ambition, humor, and domestic chaos became part of my research. But most importantly, I had to infuse these themes with my own deeper philosophical questions so as to not fall into mere depictions, or image making.”
In the era of identity politics in art that is loaded with ideological gamesmanship and geared toward branding, Madrigal is an outlier because he paints the stories that unfold around him. He explained, “I decided to sacrifice the dazzling for the consequential early on. Perhaps because I could never really live up to the image of a “contemporary artist”, with all the glitter, sophistication and edge. So as a way to distinguish myself (and yet be myself) in a hyper-critical and identity-driven figurative landscape, I surrendered to genre paintings, where I can situate my biggest questions in the smallest moments, poke fun at myself, all the while taking painting itself and its history as serious as possible.”
Madrigal’s genre paintings are frozen moments that would be cheesy and schmaltzy if they were not so funny. He drew inspiration to pursue his comedic impulse from the 18th century English artist and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson’s print The Chamber of Genius (1806) in which he portrays himself painting at an easel in a messy room with his wife in bed holding a baby with a toddler on the floor. Madrigal even pays homage to this artwork in Chamber of Confusion (2018) by depicting himself painting in a contemporary version of a similarly cluttered family room with his wife and baby. Madrigal also takes inspiration from the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Steen, who set himself apart from his contemporaries by portraying himself in comical roles related to his interest in theater. Madrigal’s passion for comedy runs the gamut from historical painting to sitcoms to home video to stand-up comedians like Mike Birbiglia’s satires on the role of fatherhood..
Madrigal won hearts in his first exhibition at Nicodim last year, by painting marital sex with a child nearby who might see them at any moment. He continues this thread in Tickle Fight, with a married couple falling off a bed, laughing as they tickle each other. The chaotic splendor of sumptuous turquoise satin sheets, silk lingerie, diaphanous curtains and soft flesh tones have the luminosity we associate with the grandeur of historic genre painting. But Madrigal makes fun of high seriousness by juxtaposing popcorn in a microwave oven in a nearby room with the Milky Way seen through the open window to frame comedic marital sex between the mundane and the cosmic.
In For Your Love is More Delightful than Wine, he gazes admiringly at his wife’s torso which recalls Ingres’ Grande Odalisque except that she is not objectified by the invisible male gaze. Instead, they are face-to-face in a moment of intimacy. Madrigal uses body language to convey psychological import, and in Avoiding Self-Confrontation, Madrigal upends the cliché of the inflated artist preoccupied with self-image, who is instead seen from the back, bending over a basin in the bathroom like an ordinary schmuck trying to ignore his reflection in the mirror.
In two smaller individual portraits, Madrigal and his wife are seen blowing bubbles. Madrigal plays with the illusion of faces reflected in bubbles just as he plays with mirror reflections. In many paintings he sees the world through the eyes of a child - as his daughter would - taking innocent delight in the wonderment of commonplace things. He is seen playing with his family at the beach or at a playground, giving his daughter a piggyback ride, standing on his hands with his family, or falling off a swing onto his head, as his pants slip down. While humorous, Madrigal’s work inverts the “bumbling dad” trope that is overused in sitcoms by bringing out the deeper psychological significance of humility as his modus operandi for making art. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author