PRINT December 1966

A Conversation with Joe Raffaele

TWO EXTREMES ANIMATE CONTEMPORARY ART. One presents the world in terms of abstract formulae, the world as conception. The other, feeding on empirical reality, represents the world as perceived. As a result of his one-man show in 1965, Joe Raffaele, almost alone, became the champion of the latter view without ever falling into illustration. In his recent exhibition at the Stable Gallery he enlarges the seemingly limited prospects of his art. At first it appeared that the fascination of Raffaele’s work lay in the immediately striking, rather sexual, interdependencies of glossy high-life fragments relating to the cinema and sun-worship (nudism). Raffaele’s new work implies the replacement of traditional unifying pictorial schema through the contrast and analogy of “literary” or allusory ones.

Eyes, Mouth, Fish; Watch; Canyon; Operation, a recently completed work will serve as representative of the growing complexity of Raffaele’s organizations. This picture “hangs together” less by its spatial, coloristic or shape unifications, by the “picking up” of colors and values, or by an overall “touch” which knits the surface into a continuous whole, than through a considerably more unusual and personal method based on allusion, which is at once all the aforementioned operations plus the physical-visual motion based on unconscious association.

Eyes (a convenient abbreviation of the knotty list of elements which comprise the work) is a large canvas about 63 inches wide and 78 inches high. It is composed of four separate rectangles, the visual itinerary of which is particularly insisted upon by the striping of each canvas into separate quarters. The upper left-hand corner, Eyes, Mouth, Fish, represents six male eyes, a single pair of lips, and a fistful of fingers attempting to pry open the mouth of a speckled tropical fish. The lower left section, Canyon, peers into a vast chasm. The predominant color is a cool blue and the general effect is evening-like. The solitary figure, however, does not serve as a vicarious foil, a figure with whom the spectator empathizes, as in the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. Raffaele is too emotionally detached to admit such transcendental overtones to his work. Section three, Operation, retains some of the crepuscular coloration of Canyon, despite the chromium topicality of the surgical scene. In an odd way the nurses and doctors have a kind of children’s-corner quality, like mythic royalty swathed in gauze. The quarter directly above this scene, Watch, displays the buckle and crocodile leather watchband and half the face of a Bulova.

How these disparate visual fragments, these reassembled splinters of magazine photographs function together, how they unify, is the issue posed by these notes.

Raffaele: First there’s the eyes, then the mouth and nose, then the fish being held open by the hands. That’s one panel. Then there’s a man looking into a canyon at dusk. Next comes the operation and finally, the watchband.

Pincus-Witten: Doesn’t the first panel contrast with the second because of the comparison between somewhat flat elements and the violently deep?

R: I don’t know if “contrast” is the right word. In real life a canyon is a deep space, but in pictorial terms I don’t know how deep it is. It is a mistake to talk in purely pictorial terms. At first, I only put the eyes in, then the nose and mouth. At that point I had no idea how it all would be when it would be finished. Next I painted the fish, still not knowing how it would add up. Each element is terribly important of and by itself and Canyon was important to me because of its timelessness and its vastness.

P-W: You choose the elements then, because of your private feelings about them and not necessarily because they fit together structurally, formally?

R: Yes. The most important thing is, that as you move from image to image you are aware of how really different they are from each other.

P-W: But you are not only satisfying shapes and weights, you are not only “designing.”

R: That happens by itself, automatically. It’s something else. Here’s a simple example. The top part is filled with things that live or that have lived. Therefore its subject is Life. The bottom part is just the opposite. Life is emptied from it. It’s all craggy and dry. An equation is set up between the bottom and the top. It’s a flip-over. It’s an opposite. Operation is once again about life. So far the whole thing is about eyes, a fish, a canyon, and an operation. Now the images begin actively to relate to one another. The top is about people. The fish is also about people because of its context. The first part is about the human aspects of life.

P-W: The first panel is about transitory things.

R: And the second panel is about something eternal. Operation concerns numbers of people again but this time in the presence of science and in the face of an unknown result.

P-W: The incision seems to be like the forced opening of the fish’s mouth. Operation suggests certain “human” qualities found in the first panel, while the chromium fixtures and mechanical utensils suggest something of the hard, dry character of Canyon. Operation seems to be an amalgam of qualities of the first two panels.

R: Yes, but it’s never that simple. Operation is, after all, a separate third image. I don’t insist on such direct comparisons though I agree that they exist. Instead let’s only think of these images as describing a path. Moving counter-clockwise we come to Watch. This panel has the most white. It’s the only panel with just a single element.

P-W: It seems to me that you pay a great deal of attention to the sensuous character of the watchband, the kind of leather it is, its color, its shimmering and waxed quality. Each of the segments of the skin is so clearly defined. I can see this as a reprise of the speckled, fantastic scales of the fish.

R: Also of the craggy part of the cliff.

P-W: Of the surgery lights and starched operating gowns.

R: But don’t be fooled again by seeing only the surface character of the objects I am describing.

P-W: How do they avoid the danger of merely being a sequence of narrative clues?

R: Because they are constantly shifting. The panels also break down into different group combinations. Vertically we have two groups, Man-Nature versus Technology-Science. Diagonally we have the people and multiplicity of Eyes as we do in Operation. The finger opening the fish is like the man being opened by the doctor. The opposite diagonal sets isolated figures against one another, the solitary figure in Canyon against the watchband. In addition they are both about time. The canyon is time past and the watch is time present. They are both measures of time.

A trellis of comparison and allusion is set up within Raffaele’s compositions. This allusive structure creates paths across the surface which unify the panels into cohesive groups. These paths, however, this retinal activity, are not the dependents of associative preconception. The paintings are not contrived in order to set up an obvious symbolic rebus. Raffaele’s pictorial selectivity is unconscious and natural, an unpremeditated ordering from the chaos of the world’s imagery.

Robert Pincus-Witten