Derrick Guild

SERIOCOMIC: Scottish painter Derrick Guild, next to his work "Label Infanta" at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

The thread that runs through Derrick Guild's work is a knotted one. Any possibility of continuity gets purposely, repeatedly, mischievously disrupted.

In one series, the Scottish artist sets single vegetables against dark grounds, painting with all the elegant sobriety of a 17th century Spanish still-life master. He renders a head of cauliflower, its florets beginning to brown, nestling in a lush collar of curling leaves. Another canvas, painted with equal care and conviction, features an impossible hybrid, half potato and half sweet potato, seamlessly conjoined.

In another group, Guild reprises portraits by Velázquez. The well-known images of King Philip IV's children and court are instantly recognizable and persuasive, even though Guild has neatly apportioned each portrait across what appears to be a grid of paper labels -- a homage turned minimalist mosaic.

Throughout, Guild pays clear tribute to the great Spanish painters of the past. At the same time -- and often in the same works -- he captures the wicked humor of another of his heroes, the contemporary comics artist R. Crumb. "I think these paintings are more about my personality than they are about themselves," he says. "My personality is in my work. It's obtuse, dark, funny and a little irreverent as well as" -- and here he interrupts his thought with a burst of laughter -- "quite reverential!"

Southern Californians have their first opportunity to see Guild's work at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas through Aug. 1, and can also get a taste of that seriocomic personality, because the artist is continuing his residence there through Saturday. During his stay, Guild is making a large "label" painting of a Velázquez equestrian portrait in the gallery/studio. During the three days a week that Lux is open to the public, he works in full view of visitors, surrounded by selections from 10 years of his painting and sculpture.

Lux's unusual residency program, inaugurated in 2007 (and complementing educational outreach programming), was designed to make not just art but the extended creative process more accessible. "It breaks down a huge barrier for people, especially for people who aren't of a culture where they go to museums from the time they grow up, are intimidated and don't know how to break in," says director Reesey Shaw.

"The artists bridge that gap for people, whether they say a lot or a little or nothing at all. At Lux, there's a beginning, middle and an end. Artists are making something happen from nothing. We in the arts often forget that some people can't conceive of that. People here can go into the studio and see a mini-retrospective, the continuum that leads up to the work that is being done."

In a conversation on the first day of the residency, as he waited for an underlayer of ivory black and cadmium red to dry, Guild said he was looking forward to learning more about his work from the experience. On a shelf nearby sat a life-size painted resin sculpture of a melon, a lemon protruding from its side like a natural growth. Mounted on another wall was a startlingly realistic resin cast of a potato, studded with cubic zirconia eyes.

"Something that can be incredibly serious can have a lot of wit or playfulness in it at the same time," explains the 45-year-old, Edinburgh-based artist, looking SoCal casual in camouflage shorts and sandals. The potato piece, "Root Crop," registers initially as an unexpected joke, but refers to darker historical phenomena -- the Irish potato famine and the harvesting of blood diamonds.

"I'm quite interested in what we value as people. These kinds of crops from the earth carry an awful lot of weight and meaning to us, but sticking them together. . . ," he says, trailing off. In that sculpture, as in much of his work, he finds that "messing about with things" yields rich poetry and metaphor.

Tall and lean, with close-cropped graying hair, Guild has an inner restlessness that thrives on knotting that thread of continuity. His intensity is leavened with twinkling humor, wry spirit. A week into the residency, he reports that many visitors have been laughing as they've looked around at the work -- "the right kind of laughing," he notes.

His fondness for unlikely juxtapositions might be more than just personal style, he speculates. It may be a national trait. "In Scotland we have a fun and dark side that go hand in hand. Where I come from, on the east coast, there's quite a history of odd little surreal poems, little phrases and sayings that are light and dark, kind of bawdy." He opens a catalog of his work to a page showing a painting of the phrase, "Glorious Woe," written in thorny rose stems and cucumber slices. "It's something in our character. There's a surrealism there, I think."

The artist evolves

Born in Perth, Scotland, Guild was educated at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, where he's taught since the early '90s. Although he has a healthy record of solo shows in Britain and New York to his credit, he hasn't often been in aesthetic sync with his peers. He did the sort of large-scale figurative painting that was dominant in the '80s, when he was a student, but "tighter-edged, very autobiographical and heavy, kind of like Max Beckmann meets Tom Waits."

After graduating, he started painting androgynous, "pagan-like" figures with lots of fish and animals. They remind him now of the work of Julie Heffernan, the New York artist who completed a Lux residency last spring.

A back injury compelled him to scale down his work, which led him also to pare it down. He created a series of small, dark still lifes, offerings to the River Tay, near where he was raised. One, he says, shows a hammer tied to a lump of seaweed. Another, a little skull made out of daisies. These strange fusions led into the decade of work on view here.

"When you put two objects together, something happens, whether it's poetry or a metaphoric charge. I really enjoyed what was starting to happen, this quieter thing."

Around that time, he made a painting of a gray jacket with blank labels hanging from it. He had been getting a hard time for the "dark, Dutch-related" paintings he was making, and wanted to avoid being labeled as a certain type of artist. "I think Neo-Geo was just happening and the kind of work I was making was a bit too quiet. But I've always been schizophrenic in my work. I do lots of different things, and I don't know why you're not allowed to." The Velázquez-derived label paintings trace their origin to that time, and Guild continues to paint them at a rate of about one per year. The most recent one at Lux is a modest-sized portrait of Pope Innocent X, his stern gaze neatly dissected into a grid of 24 labels.

After a week of work, Guild has the painting-in-progress plotted out, and even lets a young boy step in and apply an underlayer of russet to one label, part of what will eventually become a streaky sky.

A few minutes later, Guild pulls back from the canvas to explain another of his recent works to a confused visitor. The painting looks like it was salvaged from centuries ago -- a botanical drawing on a yellowed, creased sheet of paper. But Guild is messing with things again: The work is a still-life study of an antique botanical drawing. Illusionistic paintings of other two-dimensional artworks first emerged in Europe around 1700, but Guild tweaks even that coy convention by also having several species of blossom erupt from the drawing subject's single stem.

He made the painting in 2008 during a two-year sojourn to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, where his wife, an attorney, had taken a position as the island's Crown counsel. He painted five such botanicals (with a total of 36 plants represented) on a porch in the tropical heat. He intends to continue filling out the series as well as various others represented in the show, none of which correspond to the "fashion-driven conceptualism" he says now dominates the Scottish art scene.

Though there's a strong conceptual underpinning to his work, "the tools I'm using" -- traditional painting methods, trompe l'oeil illusionism, the still life -- "are maybe not in that canon. The kind of work I do can't be taken seriously by them. It has too many meanings and is too referential to the past. It doesn't have a modern enough flavor."

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