Los Angeles

Robert Therrien

Ruth S. Schaffner Gallery

My first reaction to Robert Therrien’s paintings was that I had stumbled on an exhibit of Polynesian or American Indian artifacts: shields, pictographs, sled runners, and canoe outriggers. But after a minute or two the artifacts began to look wrong. The shields were too Gothic and too big. The circular pictographs contained no pictures. The runners and outriggers never would have worked. Yet even after realizing that these objects were produced as art in downtown Los Angeles in the 1970s, it’s hard to erase the impression that they once served a functional purpose in a primitive society.

Therrien’s second one-man show consisted of ten paintings and one drawing from the past four years. The paintings fall into three groups, arches, discs, and what Therrien calls “long pieces.” The three monochromatic, 8-foot wood arches framed in heavy timber are the newest and most arresting. Because of their Gothic shape, they carry unmistakable—and intentional—Christian religious connotations, and their muted colors—deep maroon, multi-hued orange, and dark blue/brown—give them a quiet, haunting feeling that carries the religious imagery beyond the obvious symbolism of their shape.

While I found these the most resolved works in the show, the long pieces are more complex and fascinating. Two are 10 and 14 feet long and 4 inches in diameter and are hung horizontally on the wall; one curves upward slightly at both ends, and the other curves up at only one end. The third is Y-shaped and 9 feet tall, splitting from one into two shafts halfway up. Each horizontal piece has a long gouge running through part of its center, which allows a slight view into the interior and gives the impression that the piece was once attached to something else, perhaps by a strut as an outrigger would be attached to a boat. The negative space suggests the object’s incompleteness and a former dependence on another object.

These long pieces, which have the look of found objects, are Therrien’s most paradoxical works to date. What appears at first to be a functional object recycled as art is really art all along. Adding to this art-nonart tension is the fact that the inspiration behind these works was an art tool: a 6-inch-long ceramic knife so coated with hardened clay and paint that Therrien could no longer use it but kept it because he found it beautiful. Not only was the shape of the tool similar to that of the long pieces which evolved from it, but the actual transformation from tool to art object was similar to the seeming transformation from tool to art in these pieces. This paradox, such as it is, gives a layer of meaning to these works beyond their purely visual impact.

The four painted discs range from 13 inches to 4 feet in diameter. On the largest, the two sheets of the plywood base have been split apart to allow a slight view into the interior. The split relates the discs to the other works since its shape echoes the shape of the gouges in the long pieces and the overall shape of the arches, but it doesn’t serve the multiple purposes here that it does in the later works.

Therrien has a restrained sense of color. In the brooding arched paintings with their deep oranges, maroons, and blues, he gives his color sense its freest play, and the fact that these are the latest works and that the almost no-color discs are the earliest suggests that he’s loosening up to this area.

Jeffrey Keeffe

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