PRINT April 1981

Facing Paint: Michael Tetherow’s Recent Work

NO MOUTH IS VISIBLE on the monolithic visage that streams down the plane of each of Michael Tetherow’s most recent paintings. A mouth would interrupt the flow of paint and vision. All is eye. Muteness encourages vision and the visionary. These paintings intend to be visionary; each presents a portrait of the artist’s unconscious as a painting. All is eye as I.

Tetherow has now moved emphatically from painting as object to painting as image—from paint that refers only to itself to paint thick with memory and meaning. The change was fraught with reluctance. Like many of his peers, Tetherow felt hemmed in by the hermeticism of modernism and sought new options in figuration. The cutout holes that, since 1971, had merely declared the physicality of the overall surface of the canvas began to accumulate increasing reference. By 1978, the holes were unmistakably eyes of a mask, although the image was fugitive and remained suppressed and diffused in an overall field of paint. The inclusion of wispy ovoids gave more body to the face and partially eroded the field, but still left the image in its grip. Allusion turned into illusion and paint turned into totem when Tetherow eliminated the cutout holes in favor of depicted eyes and liberated the face from the field by letting it loom forth in monumental isolation from the almost bare canvas. (A group of very large and freely streaking watercolors preceded and catalyzed the bold, unequivocal handling of paint as well as the iconic centralization of the face.)

The large size and radical distortion of the face makes each painting bristle with expressiveness—Tetherow clearly opts for delirium rather than deadpan. The face as state of mind—whether in trauma or trance, schizophrenia or spiritual initiation—remains moot to the eye of the beholder. The title of one of these paintings, Rivers Run Through My Face, denotes an altered state of consciousness that pushes beyond the confines of culture back toward an elemental experience of nature. The painting is a self-portrait but is not self-indulgent—it is more anthropological than autobiographical. The neon blue that electrifies that earth red of the face is a river that is paint.

Tetherow’s experience of Northwest Coast Indian carvings during his youth in Washington provided important models for the creation of an elemental and emblematic figuration. The exaggerated prominence given to the eyes and the organic patterning frequently carved on wooden masks and totem poles find liquid reflection in Tetherow’s recent paintings, although, actually, his work bears a more direct, if coincidental, resemblance to the monumental stone heads of Easter Island.

Tetherow’s quest for a totemic figuration is coupled with a desire to retain the scale and physicality achieved by modernist abstraction. His intent is closely related to Pollock’s when he returned to figuration in his late paintings, but it is Clyfford Still who has been the abiding influence, both in form and in temperament. The vast scale of Still’s paintings, their taut rawness and their preoccupation with line as edge have all left their mark on the development of Tetherow’s paintings. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Still was less willing than his co-pioneers to suppress the referential and “expressive”; his crusty, irregular surfaces, crackling with prickly edges, readily allude to the brooding forces of a primeval wilderness. Forces that might well be seen through Tetherow’s eyes.

In the early paintings, Tetherow’s interest in Still is mediated by his keen awareness of the work of Brice Marden and Ralph Humphrey. In the most recent paintings, Still’s influence has been totally assimilated and translated into a new language necessary for Tetherow’s expression of the subject. Subject has liberated the paint.

In Rivers Run Through My Face, as in the other two paintings, paint erupts from the top edge of the canvas and flows down toward the bottom in a variety of liquid states—slow and pasty as it is pushed down from the top by brush and palette knife, then fast and streaky as it runs to the bottom edge. Some streaks remain as lines; some obscure the form of the face; some become the edges of shapes formed by the bare canvas. The shifting of these shapes from positive to negative simultaneously forms and deforms the image. Is the run of bare canvas in the center of the painting to be read positively as a nose or negatively as a cleft between conflicting sides of the face? Are the tensely stretched ovals under the eyes ritual scarification on the face or erosions of the face caused by the territorial struggle between paint and canvas? Do these ovals balance the composition or unbalance consciousness?

The paint reflects the subject. The subject is the eyes. The horizontals of the eyes hold the extreme verticals of the face and the canvas in check. The eyes first stop the flow of the paint, then free it so that it rushes to the bottom. Although pupils are indicated, the sockets of the eyes are pale grey-blue, encouraging the viewer to look through them. The face becomes a mask. Looking out becomes looking in and through.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.