PRINT September 1986


I’VE BEEN TOLD THAT FELIX’S paintings look like ’50s toilet-paper ads, so let’s say that Felix is one of the Delsey School. When propagandizing a painter’s work the simplest expedient is to preempt possible criticism by inverting it into a positive quality. If a work will be attacked as too much like postwar commercial art, simply state that postwar commercial art was great, embodied all future myth, and then trace recent painting from it: David Bowes, Samantha McEwen, Felix, and the rest of the Delsey School. Because something resembles another thing doesn’t make it that thing.

But in truth, weren’t the illustrations of Jon Whitcomb and Edwin Georgi in Ladies’ Horne Journal or McCall’s the stuff of myth? I’ll never forget, even through the exquisite mists of my childhood, a billboard for milk by Georgi (in my earliest youth the names of illustrators in the popular press were as familiar to me as Cima da Conegliano’s) of a beautiful young matron with a flawless manicure who looked at the viewer over the refreshing glass of milk that she held to her lips. Her thick lashes were heavily pollinated with golden light, and the sun on her red hair, caught in bright asterisks by her hair spray, was dazzling with hope. I wish I had that billboard now. That hair spray hasn’t been available for years and the milk is radioactive.

But aren’t all painters selling something anyway. Felix isn’t selling milk, but a vision, a pitch for an ideal world. Painters make the world over into their vision by showing their vision to the world. This process is almost alchemical; if the leaden world isn’t changed we still have a golden picture, to show that a way is possible, if only in a painting. Felix’s paintings are an advertisement for a life of beauty generosity and love, where Rasta and Hasid drink milk together in the same landscape where the lion lies down with the lamb. Sometimes what the painting is of is enough.

Pictures can take us to faraway places; this relationship of an artist’s unique vision with the general condition of being alive is what makes artists significant. Artists are distant from we who see their paintings. Their distance, their separateness, becomes our avenue of access to their work; we want to be shown what we cannot see. They are as familiar with their visions as a sailor is familiar with the sea, which people on land know but do not experience. Painters dramatize the uniqueness of their vision, and make their loneliness the common property of all who have eyes to see.

The most important quality a critic must possess is the cessation of the critical faculty before a work of art. Visionary painting, by its nature, requires the suppression of will in the viewer; one doesn’t enter the land of dreams awake. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what a painting looks like. What the painting is of must be enough, otherwise Blake is a hack, Botticelli a gothic throwback, and Albert Pinkham Ryder a lot of cracks. Their range of vision contains incomparably wider time and space than day-to-day events. Visionaries catch their pictures whichever way they can, making their time, not keeping up-to-date, letting time catch up with them.

The work of Felix is a light, and what I remember about that billboard is its light. Light is the most elusive quality a picture can possess, and is to painting what scale is to sculpture. A Vermeer, for example, is always spoken of in terms of its light, usually about how the light enters from the left and the pear-shaped pearl it envelops. However, when you look at a perfectly preserved Vermeer (like the one in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of a woman receiving a letter, before it was rolled up and ruined by a thief in 1971), you aren’t struck by the simple depiction of light; the painting is, rather, a source of light. The light seems to come from the picture as from a transparency on a light box. So it is not the light contained in a picture that concerns us, it is the light that emanates from it. (And aren’t Vermeers a beautiful size.)

(At the moment the market seems inundated with paintings by latterday Caravaggisti. One can hardly turn around without getting stuck to heavily glazed paintings of tenebrous subaquatic effect where chiaroscuro is the real subject, but with an attenuated striving for subject matter to bear the weight of heavy-handed effect. And so the candle hidden behind the Virgin’s hand has been traded in for a chandelier: a lovely picture for the home. Or they’re redoing the ’50s and ’60s, not just the ads but the art, sprung full-blown from the head of Bridget Riley or, to slip a peg, Nicholas Krushenich. Hasn’t half the painting of the last two years looked like old Knoll catalogues and Dubonnet ads or Kenneth Nolands and is there a difference at this point? Anyway, so much recent painting has become insipid and academic, whether messy surfaces and crass colors that die in a puddle on your wall, exact copies of famous paintings made smaller or larger for those proud of their art-history courses, or confected hard-edged paintings for those who don’t like messy, but all so circumscribed by a historical tautology that one just wants to scream “I get the joke” but please put it in a book and not on a wall because I, for one, want to see something I haven’t already seen. I don’t care about anyone else’s art education. I don’t want to see the same thing in a different way; I want to see something different.)

Felix’s paintings are a source of light. This is an artist who has learned how to make pictures shimmer and they would work if they only had their paint, but they also take us to faraway places and advertise a vivid and personal world that is a vacation for the heart and an antidote for eyes poisoned by the toxic by-products of art history.

Rene Ricard is a poet.