New York

Rudolf Baranik

Lerner-Heller Gallery

It is difficult to pinpoint how an art object evokes a particular mood, how it touches certain feelings. While the expressive impact of art is an essentially private experience, it is at the same time generally accessible, deriving from some common ground, some universal symbol, rather than a Proustian flow of personal recollection. However, the impossibility of completely prescribing the necessary cues becomes apparent when one tries to specify the effectiveness of an artwork’s emotive content. Looking at Rudolf Baranik’s recent paintings, for instance, one is intellectually aware of his attempt to create an atmosphere of silent horror and bleakness. Intellectually aware but not emotionally. One can read the pictorial vocabulary of works like TA3 or Near, where empty expanses painted in matte grays or blacks press against a horizontal band made from an ordered collage of organic shapes, fragments of images with landscape and anthropomorphic associations. Read but not feel. 

One does sense, though, a serious purposefulness which evinces Baranik’s continued allegiance to the heroic, moralistic stance of Abstract Expressionism. It is the earnestness of this urge toward what Lawrence Alloway aptly described as “momentous content” (Artforum, November, 1973), combined with the use of large, implicitly rectilinear areas of blacks and grays, that suggests a comparison with Mark Rothko’s late works. What is it in Rothko’s paintings that engenders barren desolation viscerally inside one? And why do Baranik’s works somehow fail to touch one on that level, even given a desire to be convinced? 

To begin with, there is the relative smallness (compared to body size) of Baranik’s paintings, a feature emphasized by the restricted space of the gallery. Rothko once said, “I paint very large paintings . . .  precisely because I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass.” It is just this sense of control that distances one from Baranik’s work. One is never dominated by Baranik’s paintings; one is always in command. This feeling of separateness also derives from the paintings’ professionally refined appearance. Rothko applied his color thinly and unevenly to allow the blacks and grays to expand beyond the framing edge. In contrast, the matte opacity of Baranik’s evenly brushed grays and blacks closes off his paintings. Although such a heavy dullness in conflict with the delicacy of the imagery might be evocative, in this case it emphasizes the finished look of the surface. The esthetic arrangement of the collage elements increases this sense of precious tastefulness. 

Baranik’s broken-up imagery, sometimes explicitly referential, impels a narrative reading, as of a visual poem, and on this level the work does evoke a mood. Yet it is an evocativeness contingent on the conscious interpretation of symbols rather than visceral impact. It hints at a stridency, a momentousness, that is not realized. Perhaps, what is really missing is indefinable, that elusive quality which I can only call “rightness.” 

Susan Heinemann