Los Angeles

Robert Harvey

David Stuart Galleries

Robert Harvey’s paintings and a few small drawings carry the paradox of most good, but not overwhelming, shows: that is, the tendency to appear as a conglomeration of slight faults rather than a generally pleasing collection of paintings. Harvey’s pictures are meant to resemble, in a formalistically detached manner, family snapshots taken during the late twenties and early thirties; a faint, brownish patina and white border on each picture indicates the source. The paint application, in thin stains and shallow opaques, gives a flattened chiaroscuro that pushes the images back into the realm of things recalled. This carefully plotted, personal nostalgia, titled with such unassuming endearments as, “My Cousin Chet” is poignant, considered rhetorically, and beautiful, considered technically; but Harvey raises a few doubts concerning small corners of some of the paintings and the import of his work as a stylistic whole.

The flavor of the box Brownie artifact is diluted by exquisite composition; the image of mother, father and assorted cousins, their wonderful automobiles and Sunday outings lose their romantic blur when anchored so finely with the canvas rectangle. “Terry’s First Thanksgiving,” the largest painting in the show, is an elegantly posited, negatively-spaced group portrait that would have been beyond even the accidental reach of the casual family historian-cum-camera. There are, too, bad individual passages in the show: “. . . Thanksgiving” suffers from the unfortunate placement of an incidental water faucet, and another picture, containing a biplane, is nearly destroyed by a clumsily executed extraneous dog in the foreground. Color is another thing; Harvey’s paintings are, of course, tonal, but not intentionally safe. Color in full, however, is strange, if not forced, when used by Harvey as it is in mysteriously floating islands in the midst of achromatic fields. The virtuoso quality of many pictures is rather pat, but Harvey’s skill also accounts for a number of intriguing details, like the delicately adumbrated chickenwire fence in “Baby’s First Sunday at the Chicken Run,” and the gentle, moving drawings. Harvey’s imagery, though quiet, may turn out to be the hinge for a number of other painters; it has the respectability of figure painting, and a sense of recent, local American history with an overlay of “otherness” inherited, perhaps, from one end (Indiana) of Pop art. It poses a multiple choice of future directions partially evident even in the present show: isolated, print like, ethereal figurations (“The Twins’ Fifth Birthday”), flat, semi-naive, indirect portraits (“Visiting Maude on Memorial Day”), and the more painterly works which have uncovered the subjective “distance” of Gorky’s self-portrait with his mother (“. . . Chicken Run,” “The Twins Near Winfield”). Harvey’s painting, though alien to Kitaj’s physical approach, inadvertently poses a similar question: what of this painting which is intentionally anachronistic, whose content is thrown back a number of years not to expedite an historical story telling, but to relish, like an Updike novel, the sweet ache of the gap itself? In twenty years, what reaction to the Chicken Run, the Purple Gang, and a Pennsylvania high school of 1948, all authored with fond melancholia in the middle nineteen-sixties?

Peter Plagens