New York

Peter Saari and Gordon David Wine

Lamagna Gallery

Peter Saari makes paintings which look like bits and pieces of ancient Rome. They simulate fragments of wall paintings, grave steles and shrines, the corner of a room from Pompeii, an end wall of an Etruscan tomb and spearheads of decayed copper and iron. These items are all paint on canvas, with plaster, gravel or dust where needed. The results are appropriately decayed, with pale, flaking surfaces. The geometric designs, images, colors and architectural details are equally convincing; Saari has obviously researched his topic thoroughly and some of the pieces are complete with museum registration numbers. Walking into the gallery is a bit like walking into the Metropolitan. The single most amazing aspect of this achievement is the sense of weight which these chunks of masonry convey.

It may be possible to think about Saari’s work in terms of abstract painting’s concern with certain kinds of geometric design, surface emphasis, and spatial illusion, but this idea takes a poor second behind the simulation of ancient history. And anyway, thinking about the pictorial qualities here is not much different from thinking about the pictorial qualities of the Roman pieces at the Met. It is hard to take this work completely seriously as art, although the beauty and virtuosity of Saari’s work, as well as the information which it conveys about the painting of the Romans, are undeniable. Yet it is hard to take seriously except as modified replicas of the first order. They reflect Saari’s ability, but not on the terms of a 20th-century artist. No one has ever questioned the capacity of mankind to mimic its previous accomplishments, for most “culture” amounts to that. Perhaps this is a point which Saari intends and which I completely misread. But it seems to me that artists and the rest of us must struggle continuously to learn from the past, to abandon it and to equal it on our own terms.

While Saari looks to the past to figure out what to do, Gordon David Wine merely looks around him. His work is contemporary in a predictable way, a competent pastiche of other people’s ideas. Wine’s wall pieces have their own mild trompe l’oeil. At first they look like large assemblages of cardboard: squares and rectangles of different sizes colors and surfaces, some corrugated, are layered together into rectangles roughly 8’ x 4’. Several are imprinted with a steel cable, which leaves lines like small tire treads across the different layers. The surfaces are splattered and creased like old cardboard but they look harder and examination reveals that the work is, in fact, made of cast polyester resin and fiberglass. The cardboard and cable seem to be two of the materials cast. Wine’s colors are muted browns, greens and grays, a widely accepted palette these days. The most obvious sources are Rauschenberg, Marden and Rockburne, but the assertion of material and process with a certain reserve are qualities which are generally familiar. Wine does not extend them, although he uses them well. However, his use of material seems problematic. Cardboard and fiberglass are fairly recent to art and are usually used for the inherent qualities which distinguish them from other materials. To use the first to form the second so that the second simulates the first and the whole thing looks like painting seems to confound, not dispel, illusion and to restrict once more the possibilities of both materials.

Roberta Smith