Art imitates... Not our life, but don't we wish

As even the semi-saavy are now well aware, merchandisers like J-Crew, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Pottery Barn have gone beyond simply and straight-forwardly advertising their products. Now they attempt to manufacture a lifestyle– a visually attractive vacation/recreation-like space filled with pretty people who always have a glass of wine or an iced tea on hand, where stubble looks good, and where no one ever sweats. 
And then, with a sneaky calculated second pass, they place their merchandise within that stylish space, and sell it– sled rides, hardwood floors, fisherman sweaters, and all– to the consumer. 
Painter Jonathan Stuhlman has noticed these pretty places in the popular catalogs, and his reaction to Jcrewville is far from anti-consumerist disgust— instead, it’s one of admiration. After all, the visuals from these catalogs have been carefully and skillfully crafted and are often quite beautiful. Their persuasive charm is implicitly acknowledged in the buying habits of many, even though the products might not be the kinds of things you generally cop to. 
Although with his latest exhibit at the Mudhouse, Stuhlman does just that. Although he cleverly loots the catalogues for his show’s title “j. cr & p. brn,” he still manages to pay irony-less tribute to the contemporary catalog mise-en-scene.  
Like your typical catalog environment (only Spring/Summer lines here), Stuhlman’s paintings are open, airy, and oxygen-rich spaces, assembled in sandy khakis, sky blues, and Nantucket-beach-house white. He tightly frames his compositions, which, though devoid of actual humans, just about imply the missing models and their fancy clothes, who could very well be lounging just beyond one of Stuhlman’s frames.
In one painting, for example, a bare white wall meets a glossy wood-paneled floor almost at the bottom of the frame, and just peeking out from the side, there’s an empty, matching wood bench. 
Stuhlman isn’t afraid to take scenes from his own glossy Jcrewville and push them towards abstraction. In another context, one of his paintings may look like nothing but blurry blocks and stripes of color on a long skinny canvass.
But placed alongside Stuhlman’s other work, the subject becomes obvious: a strip of sand under treeline under blue sky, stratified, cut, and set end-out, like a slice of cake. Indirectly, Stuhlman may be asking us to give a moment of thought to what’s going on in the catalogs (i.e., are we really aware of this marketing scheme?), but in the main, he lets the viewer enjoy the scenery—and you don’t have to supply your credit card number.

Jonathan Stuhlman’s “j. cr & p. brn,” two series of oil on panel paintings. run through September 29 at the Mudhouse, 213 Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 984-6833.

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