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Not a pretty picture

Bodily decay and religion scrutinized at Trinity Gallery

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Age has not mellowed 78-year-old figurative artist Robert Marx, whose work contains a fury suited to an artist half his age.

The human race is chopped up and fed to the crows in his artwork, which drips with the kind of malice unexpected in the silver-haired set.

Rather than rendering the unmarred, supple flesh of the young, Marx's visual lexicon are the sagging breasts, flaccid penises, baldpates, liver spots and bowling ball guts of the old. The Rochester, N.Y., artist's etchings, sculptures and paintings on view at Trinity Gallery in Buckhead are misanthropic in the extreme, fixated on bodily decay and often singling out organized religion for his most damning attacks.

Some of Marx's most arresting works are also his tiniest: diminutive 3-by-2-inch etchings of ordinary women and men subjected to the artist's critical vision. A number of works feature iconic character types -- Parson, Skeptic, Prince, Pilgrim, Matron, Enigma, Impostor -- that highlight the timeless, mythic character of his critique, which seems to span from the dawn of time until the end.

Though Marx's dire vision is also represented in paintings and sculpture, it is the frantic graphite strokes and splatters of ink on his drawings and etchings that make them his most visceral and haunting work. Marx tends to focus just on his subject's disembodied heads, cutting them off from distracting details, as though they are floating in a jar of formaldehyde. A number of Marx's heads rest on a tiny spindle of cord or flesh at the base or top of the head, like bugs impaled on metal pins. The artist seems engaged in a taxonomy of human misery -- the fool, the hypocrite and, most fundamentally, the church, as in "Judgment," in which a bishop makes three elderly naked women dance like marionettes. In the etching "They Were Fighting About Religion," Marx's vision resembles nothing so much as an illustration out of a medical textbook, its male figure viewed in bisected profile and impaled through his mouth with a rod, as if to end the argument about faith right then and there. Many of the portraits are done in profile to lend a scientific, investigative air.

Marx often resembles British artist Francis Bacon for a similar formal quality in which rage is compressed into economical form. Bacon strove "to remake the violence of reality itself" and convey "the brutality of fact." Marx's work is a mesmerizing, frightening effort to reveal a comparable inhumanity of social behavior. That endeavor might seem harsh. But Marx's often delicate technique and plangent tone cast him as both skeptic and romantic, longing for humankind to exceed his expectations rather than so brutally disappoint. That quality is evident in the ethereal graphite-on-paper work, "Aged Father," of a man with enormous cabbage ears and beard returning to vaporous form.

As any man at his age, Marx has certainly considered death, and his work of people whose souls seem to have prematurely left them is testament to that inquiry. In a large number of his portraits, eye sockets are left disturbingly empty so that the heads suggest their inevitable transformation into skulls. Death's destruction of the flesh is an idea always hovering on the margins of Marx's work. The cliche of eyes as windows into the soul proves justified in this case. Without them, his subjects are spectral, horrifying.

Amid his small selection of sculptures -- again, often of heads cut off at the neck -- is a wooden chessboard of bronze chess pieces onto which the artist has written, "Once the game is over the king and the pawn go back in the same box." When you're dead, you're dead, he seems to be saying. Kings and commoners decay with equal speed.

Felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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