New York

Irving Petlin

Odyssia Gallery

Irving Petlin’s large paintings at Odyssia are extremely disturbing. Their imagery investigates an awesome area, the invented animal. Petlin paints creatures impossible to read as lamb or fowl or man but suggestive of each. Going further in aberration than the conventional sphinx, centaur, or griffin, Petlin’s figures do not analyze neatly into, say, one kind of head on another kind of body. Feathers and limbs are familiar enough to make Petlin’s animals quite plausible, but their chilling if often whimsical mystery is that as animals they are totally new. They don’t just cross the line between the established species; they go on quietly to dismiss it. As flesh ourselves, we peer at these creatures, our metaphysical kin, and shudder. For through them we feel, as beyond our familiar and therefore rational anatomy a hint of that abyss, organic anarchy.

But such anarchy, in Petlin’s hands, does not occur in a tempestuous or oppressive setting. Instead, his creatures people vast, calm perspectives whose mood, under a gentle shadowless light, is serene, almost benign. Gold and light grey dominate Petlin’s palette; he paints a quietly radiant noon, not brooding midnight. It is their sense of the luminous and the still—rather than, say, Goya’s gloom and violent energy—that reveals in Petlin’s paintings what the early 19th century called “the bright sublime.” Though plausible as flesh and ground, his figures and landscape are so suffused with calm light that they also begin to seem ethereal.

Petlin’s sense of composition is very fine. Like Baroque tapestries, his paintings reflect an interest in scenes framed by ornate borders. But they go further. The borders move gently into the scene itself, blending, in “. . . Rachel” particularly, into a receptive, mysterious foreground. In this picture such a passage of formal metamorphosis (border to foreground) extends the organic metamorphosis mentioned earlier. For the right-hand figure, growing uninterruptedly from the landscape and very picture frame, can be read not only as a new animal, but as plant, curious rock and pure strange design. The range of references that Petlin makes compatible is staggering.

Petlin uses his horizon skillfully. In Rachel it is isolated over a middle ground completely empty, so that it seems to float. Instead of being a point of reference, perspective’s anchor, it hovers, a place of mystery. This effect is enhanced by the foreground’s cloud-like pattern ending above the distant mountains, thereby further disorienting the eye, as the mountains are gently denied their usual role of dividing earth from sky. In Reshoft Petlin provides two horizons, the sky of the nearer, in a nice spatial pun, doubling as a cool middle ground for the farther. Above both rise two more of his fabulous creatures, distanced twice by the two horizons. Petlin is a master of the uncanny and the serene.

Jean-Louis Bourgeois