Celeste Rapone, Homebody, Oil on Canvas, 50” x 68”, 2016.

If there was a painting award for telling the most perplexing story with the least amount of drudgery, Celeste Rapone could win it. Her four canvases in the recent two person show with Jenn Smith at Julius Caesar demonstrate this. Each work expertly combines multiple painting techniques and subverts conventional notions of three-dimensional space (and human anatomy, for that matter). All of the paintings feature a figure, vaguely female, with a gaping, blow-up-doll mouth and beady eyes. Oddly, the faces seem to be the least delineated parts of these compositions. The artist shifts focus instead to the cramped spaces the figures inhabit and the experimental planes that give the works a bizarre, dark and surreal allure. The shock-faced figures are engulfed by their environments.

One work with the descriptive title of Woman Receiving News No. 2 disrupts pictorial expectations with a split-screen effect. It shows two views of the same scene — a blonde woman in a bathtub with a TV dinner tray, a glass of wine and a magic 8-ball. Her lips purse into a Trumpian beak, and her bulbous eyes protrude from her head like a snail’s. The profile view on the left appears to overlap the over-the-shoulder view on the right, creating a disorienting shadow. The cartoonish roundness of her snail eyes mimics her toes poking out of the water and the 8-ball that she holds in her hands.

Rapone’s recent work displays a trendy but extraordinarily compelling disregard for naturalistic modeling. Among the broad swoops and loopy anatomical anomalies, there are pops of delicately rendered forms, like the remote-control in the epic (in scale and visual loudness) Homebody. This painting, starring a loud yellow and red gingham swath of fabric enveloping multiple fleshy figures is a knockout. At the opening reception, viewers appeared almost hypnotized by it, which is rare for these social events. There’s an elusive charm to this collection — uncannily full of finesse and without any, made up of expertly awkward shapes. The distinctly challenging textures she chooses to tackle, like a transparent to-go cup in the dark, a hazy bathroom mirror reflection, and billowing gingham are not for the faint of heart. But instead of simply showing off her chops, she goes to a less serious place, nodding to Cubism with its flatness and to the vast expanse of the afterlife of painting.

Jenn Smith, Book of Acts, Acrylic and oil on panel 20″ x 26″, 2017.

Around the corner at Julius Caesar is a set of more direct paintings. These modestly sized Easter-hued oils by Jenn Smith center around the Bible and American Midwest farming culture where she grew up in rural central Illinois, in an Evangelical Christian household. The work explores that culture through the use of humor. Biblical scenes are simplified into flat blocks of color and hastily painted in a childlike manner, betrayed by the meticulously primed and sanded surfaces. In Newcity’s recent Breakout Artists issue, she explains: “I love that feeling of a painter trying to make something look a certain way and it failing.” The untrained aesthetic and pastel palette she employs self-mockingly calls to mind the naive innocence that fanatical Christians applaud or innocently mimics Biblical narratives as though seen through a child’s eyes. Their chalky palettes and unrefined shapes call to mind Sunday-School tempera paintings into which are thrown weird little wrenches. There are two paintings involving corn — one in which two figures lying on their bellies stuff cobs into their mouths while snakes slither through tunnels below them and the other where the bottom half of a nude figure with eyeballs on its buttcheeks squats over a corn stalk. The most crowd-pleasing painting at the opening features a flashlight against a pale gray background with Jesus’ smirking face on the end — a yellow beam of light shooting out of the top of his head.

Rapone’s cartoonish work looks like Rembrandt’s next to, Smith’s technically unconcerned style, but they both come from academia, with MFAs from SAIC, and thus reflect the zeitgeist of emerging artists to a certain extent. Their inward-looking, figurative take on the stylized painting trend nods to the dubious future of the medium, which has been brought back from the dead many times but somehow seems to have more life than ever.