In May of 2009, the critic Raphael Rubinstein wrote an article in Art in America titled “Provisional Painting”, which took note of a trend in recent painting that emphasized works that looked improvised and unfinished, and in some cases blatantly provocative in their emphasis on gesture moving well ahead of form. “Casual, dashed-off, tentative and self-canceling” were the terms that Rubinstein used to describe the work of Provisionalists such as Raoul DeKeyser and Michael Krebber, and these attributes were said to stand against the idea of masterpieces, even as they seemed firmly rooted in a synthesis of a now-classical Dada and Abstract Expressionism, not to mention the hurly-burly of large-scale contemporary art fairs. Of course, for fans of Raymond Saunders’ work, Provisional Painting cannot be called new, because Saunders has been doing exactly that for the better part of four decades. And judging from his current exhibition of 15 new works at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery, he continues to do it exceedingly well.
The exhibition, Beauty as Empathy, fills two large rooms. All of the works are large and untitled from 2008 or 2009, and most feature Saunders’ trademark use of a flat ivory black ground upon which a large assortment of other marks, bright colors and collage additions are deployed with a great deal of finesse. In many cases, the picture spaces of these works are subdivided into two or three parts by a crisp line of white conte, but this is not always the case, especially when Saunders works on found objects such old doors or a blackboard salvaged from the pre-digital era of classroom teaching.
Five of the works on view feature the silhouette form of a vase, its shape echoing classical Ming simplicity as the residue of a stencil through which the artist has sprayed a silvery white paint, with overspray looking like a kind of penumbral cloud. These same works feature other fragmentary signs of Chinese culture, including calligraphy and elegant packaging materials sporting floral designs, reminding us that, for the past several years, Saunders’ work has been suffused with iconographic elements derived from Asia, perhaps registering the rise of Asian economies in the context of a new globalism.
Other frequently occurring elements include Saunders’ trademark triple loop squiggle and subtle flecks of luminescent paint spray, but it is important to state that cataloging the various elements that Saunders includes in his work misses an important point: the way he juggles such an array of disparate elements into an elegant and compelling totality that always seems a pitch-perfect balance of order and accident. Indeed, these works are great reminders of how we might appreciate the subtle poetry of the seeming random arrangements of everyday detritus, the moments when underlying similarities reveal themselves in contrast to apparent differences.
This is the most consistent and subtle exhibition of Saunders’ work that we have seen in a while. All of the works contained therein are recent and untitled, but I cannot help but point to one that is a clear throwback to an earlier work and perhaps also a harbinger of things to come. I refer to a work that features the image of another work that Saunders made in 1972, a high-resolution reproduction of a piece titled Jack Johnson, which is well-known because it adorns the cover of Richard Powell’s 1997 book, Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. It has been convincingly reprinted on a sheet of wood and subsequently painted and collaged upon in such a way so as to completely confuse the difference between the made and the manufactured, showing that technological images can be subjected to improvisatory impulses.
–MARK VAN PROYEN
Raymond Saunders, Beauty as Empathy @ Stephen Wirtz Gallery through May 22, 2010.
“Cover”: Detail, Untitled, 2009-2010, mixed media on wood, 48 x 48 inches