New York

Joseph Raffael

Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Joseph Raffael’s new paintings are all of flowers, creekbeds and lily pads, with the exception of one solemnly floating duck. Like a number of his colleagues, Raffael appears to be working to break out of his confinement in the Photo-Realist camp. Both the verdant subject matter of these picture—a repudiation, I think, of the trucks, diners, stucco houses and city facades for which the Photo-Realists are known—and Raffael’s execution are means in this effort. His scenes materialize through a kind of exploded pointillisme, whereby the individual units that make up the pictures are the size of fat pebbles. The paintings themselves are large and the flowers they contain are magnified enormously. One could make a tentative distinction between Photo-Realists who are lyrical and those who are satirical—the former ballooning small objects to fill walls, the latter reducing large ones to scale-model size. Raffael’s current work retains the Photo-Realist penchant for telephoto perspective, truncated space and objects cocked sidewise in the frame. (I suppose such distortions are thought to be characteristic of photographs.) Also on display were some small watercolors of flowers, whose bright fluid colors and patches of blank space recall Emil Nolde.

Raffael’s flowers are more fully flattened and abbreviated than Nolde’s, and their backgrounds are often unfocussed and abstract. In all the pictures, the flowers are lovely, ethereal creatures, and the creekbeds, vague, brown and dry, are such as one might expect to see below the picture window of a secluded and opulent California split-level in the midst of one’s daydreaming. The creekbed paintings are the most suffused with the pebble-effect, a mechanism that reminds me uncomfortably of the oily globules that light-show operators projected on walls at rock concerts not long ago.

Several branches of an ornamental fruit tree extend across the length of the largest picture in the show, Black Spring. Behind the blossoms are puffy, cloudy white patches, like the bubbles that often surround a cartoon figure of a drunken man. Where most of Raffael’s paintings are in dead earnest, these puffs (possibly more vegetation that is out of focus) summon a slight jocosity to the scene, and poke a little fun at the idea of fecund, luxurious, romantic springtime that the rest of the show seldom lets us forget.

Were these pictures drawings and small, and were they impressionist studies or sketches by Winslow Homer, they might have seemed quite right. Monumental as they are, they can merely represent their milieu, not outlive it. Though they may be superficially divergent, they perpetuate the essential qualities that mark so much Photo-Realist work—emotional blandness, lack of significant reference, and opinionlessness. They are intellectual lightweights, no matter how pretty or technically expert they may be.

Leo Rubinfien