PRINT January 1971

Joseph Raffael, Carlos Villa, Hank Gobin

JOSEPH RAFFAEL AND CARLOS VILLA (both recently emigrated from New York back to California) have been working with notions of an art that will invoke a strong spiritual aura and an atmosphere of magic or ritual. (In New York, Nancy Graves has developed her sculpture along similar lines; see Artforum, October, 1970.) This inevitably leads back to, or parallels the ways one must look at the arts of primitive cultures, relearning a process of seeing, with the unrationalized openness and trust of a child or a member of those older civilizations. By association, this attitude links Raffael to Gauguin; or also to some of the French Symbolists, whose disturbing, poetic imagery came out of dreams and drug-induced visions. It causes Villa to look at the artist as one whose lineage can be traced back to the shamans, medicine men, and tribal designers who produced the artifacts of early cultures. Both painters share a will to bypass conventional good taste: Raffael, through the glazed luxuriousness of the colors he uses and the impact of his blown-up photograph-like images; Villa, through a re-examination of his Filipino traditions and roots. This has prompted the latter to use such unorthodox materials as bones, mirrors, hair, and especially feathers, in his recent canvases. (Another artist who has faced similar problems is Hank Gobin, a Tulalip Indian originally from the Northwest Coast region. He has the task of reconstituting his native symbolic heritage into painted forms that can operate meaningfully for himself outside of tribal ritual and in a larger modern context.) While this is the converse of Villa’s working idea, the two have exchanged information and share an interest in revitalizing the art expression of their respective cultures.

Mounted at the Reese Palley Gallery in San Francisco during October, a large exhibition of work done by Raffael since 1968 included paintings, collages and box constructions. Raffael (who was known as Joe Raffaele in New York), used to do paintings of photographic fragments, panels which juxtaposed reactive images, often alluding to pain and sexuality. At a certain point his life and outlook changed dramatically, and his art followed suit, although one constant appears to be the nominal interest in photographs. Raffael does not consider himself a realist, and is not at all interested in the problems of replication in the same sense as are some of the “New Realist“ painters like Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close, John Clem Clarke, Robert Bechtle, and others. He uses the photograph as a partial model, particularly for its qualities of focus. Theimage produced by the camera lens implies a single, concentrated “eye“ that can see beyond the surface of an object by showing it with an extreme intensity. But Raffael thinks of it as a spiritual, rather than a mechanical eye.

Earlier paintings done during 1968–69, some in literal, cut-out forms (Angel, Buddha with Tulips, Man With Birds), some showing starkly illuminated portrait close-ups of gold mummy cases and sculptured animal or human faces (Tutankhamen, Cheetah, Gold Head, Mask) made the transition from the fragmented panels, with their sense of irony, to the current more positive and celebratory work. Complementary to these paintings, Raffael also does many collages and box constructions. The former are barely altered magazine photographs (holiday and travel magazine landscapes, natural history and geology, fashion and news shots, flowers, minerals) which make political commentary, religious and personal references, or bring on surprising, Zen-like flashes of recognition and nostalgia. The latter are sparse, modern, white glassed-in containers, personal shrines for the relics and talismans of the artist’s life. They are furnished with feathers, plastic bags filled with dried flowers and plants, branches, small stones, and other collections from the woods near the artist’s house. But the newer paintings take this fragile, ritualistic subject matter and extend it much further, so that the viewer is completely absorbed and enveloped by the sheer size and exoticism of the image and by its intricate surface textures.

Picasso’s wrinkled face, his intense eyes already clouded with age; dignified portraits of Blackfoot, Cheyenne, and Pomo Indian elders; a shackled salmon’s head; a gem-studded royal crown; two pearls caught in the erotic folds of an oyster’s flesh; or a young duck being released to fly from a man’s hand, are some of these newer images. They are enlarged to immense proportions, pried open nakedly (like the oyster) and lavished with a jewel-like, often garish beauty.

The imagery of earlier paintings such as Salmon (1968) or Lady (1968); a darkly swathed face with only its eyes showing,the headdress encrusted with pendant jewels painted in rich glazed blues, and acidic oranges, reds, golds is so startling, and at times even harsh, that their impact finally becomes awesome. They absorb and surprise, mysterious and aggressively confronting at the same time. By eliminating and telescoping distance through enlargement, Raffael also breaks down the concrete representational structure of the things portrayed, simultaneously reestablishing them on another visual and mental level. Autumn Leaves (Homage to Keturah Blakely), 1970, Oyster (1968), Salmon and Release (1970—the duck in flight) at close range add up to facades of complex feathery strokes, lush liquid flows, or glistening cellular passages. This kind of joyous expansion and concentration on the power of the image, apart from its formal qualities of convincing solidity or ultimate abstraction, is what he is trying to achieve. To make the painting look at you, with its own presence—not to leave you there just looking at it passively—would constitute a real projection, beyond the simple viewing of a painting by a spectator. The boxes and collages give a feeling of Oriental serenity, meditative and delicate. The paintings are a lot more open, but in some ways still raw, yet they never fail to elicit strong reactions.

Villa’s paintings are as difficult to accommodate to habitual ideas about viewing a canvas on a wall (some look just as well on floor or ceiling, in fact) as are Raffael’s works. Their concern is to convey an atmosphere as potent as the feeling one might have in the process of putting on a ritual mask—becoming the spirit it represents, something other than oneself, through the formality and release of a ceremony. In this sense, his aim is related to Gobin’s, though the look of their work differs considerably. At first Villa took the imagery of his earlier paintings (sprayed fields of blue, green, purple, or yellow and red, coursed by distinct coiling spirals) and overlaid them with random washes of shinier red-brown blood, attaching bits of broken mirrors, nails, hair, teeth, and radial patterns of small animals bones to their surfaces. Although the materials tended to read as applications at that point, each thing did aim to suggest something symbolically. Mirrors are bursting light sources, reminders of the present and the self, destroyed vanity, bad luck; blood or hair are classic emblems of life, fertility, and death; nails are weapons and tools; bones are messages from the past, remembrance, divination, dissolved ideals and structures. These were all combined with the patterned canvases. Like the cycles and forms of plants growing, they draw one into their type of time—a slow, winding contraction and expansion. The painted areas give an illusion of breathing depth, but an ambiguous one, as if the forms were being seen underwater. Tahitian carved canoe paddles and dyed “tapa“ cloths also utilize these repetitive, curvilinear motifs, and Villa has looked to them as part of his own ethnic and artistic background.

Later these designs were defined more concretely and integrated better with the bright, multi-colored feathers or beads glued to the surface of the unstretched canvas hangings. Creator’s Gaze (1970), a rough oval/ellipse with a fan-like core, is edged with feather tufts, and short strands of beads snake across its surface. Decision, a more squared format with similar organic, tubular imagery, has a layered cascade of red, yellow, blue, green, red, and white feathers rippling outward from the center toward the bottom of the painting, like a brilliant feathered cloak. Its rainbowed texture forms a rich contrast to the filmy, almost sober, monochrome ground. Another recent painting incorporates strings of sea-green, brown, turquoise, red, and other varied beads with softly sprayed patterns which resemble aboriginal shields, Polynesian tattoos, terraced lands, or native baskets—also coming very close in feeling to Navajo sand paintings. The patterns are thought of as definitions, documentation of stories and events—in a way that “wampum“ beads recounted the historical achievements of a chief, or commemorated important tribal treaties and battles for the Indians of the Plains cultures. These paintings feed into another new series, in which concentric linear labyrinths and natural colored feathers (brown, white, gray, black, rust), will be combined.

Henry Gobin grew up on the seacoast of Washington, and for a while took an active part in his tribe’s ceremonial dances. Although he does not now maintain continuous contact with the rituals, he has attempted to preserve the feeling of their forms and symbols through his own efforts as a painter. A recent series of emblematic, pastel watercolors refers to many of the Northwest Coast region’s totemic animals—the beaver, whale, squid, octopus, and the Tulalip crest, the feathered raven. They are situated in a fluid, unspecified, surrealist atmosphere which infers the visionary state by which many of these spirit-guardians are obtained and contacted. Gobin is familiar with the efforts required to perform the dances, and with the necessities of earning the privilege of wearing a particular spirit-mask, through an ordeal of physical and mental endurance. He has taken the forms used for these dramatic costumes—the fierce movable bird and whale masks, which literally accentuate the dancer’s passage from one spiritual world to another—and personalized them, while still retaining a formal kinship to the traditional shapes of Northwest Coast art. It could be that he is also trying to evoke the state of feeling one attains while being inside a mask, when the distance between a man’s face and the covering which hides his ordinary identity can be an infinity.

Like Gobin, Villa’s work still suggests a sense of emergence, rather than resolution. Perhaps the latter’s canvases are not yet “primitive” enough. The problem is not to make imitations of the sources or models, but to approximate their effectiveness and affect, yet in a context that no longer asks its art to serve purposes really necessary to its psychological, religious, or social survival. Like Raffael, Villa is exploring some new means of extending the presence of an image and its materials, into areas which will recapture the authentic force and depth of those art forms that were once functional and indigenous to the lives of primitive peoples. We have become so habituated to the idea that art (and culture in general, in America) is a diversion, instead of a vital expression of our lives and our society, that any artistic effort to reintegrate it, on the more basic levels of thought and feeling, looks bizarre and incongruous. Because it does not necessarily try to cater to commodity attitudes on the one hand, nor to, satisfy tame decorative values on the other, it is difficult to locate this work and its content within the confines of our ordinary attentions to contemporary art.

Emily Wasserman