New York

Paul Sarkisian

If Jim Pomeroy is grappling with the production of work in the age of mechanical art, then Paul Sarkisian is still at square one, with the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. There should be a delicious enigma in his trompe l’oeil paintings, but in view of the amusing 19th century fool-the-eye canvases of Peto and Haberle, it’s hard to cipher Sarkisian’s acrylic-on-linen sobriety. The paintings are . . . dazzlingly well painted but about as warm as a deep freeze. His limpid colors are pure Mediterranean: teal blues, warm whites, healthy flesh pinks. Why the chill? Maybe his ideas need defrosting.

The idea: paint a still life that looks like an assemblage. He’s totally successful. For about five minutes it looks as if Sarkisian has abandoned his idiosyncratic hyper-realism for the old new-realism of the collage. Wrong. He’s abandoned his lush figurative and landscape content for the Minimalist content of wrapping paper, postcards, newspaper, stray bags. Who would ever have thought of a Minimalist/super-realist esthetic? Sounds like an idea whose time has gone.

But there’s something else that’s troublesome about these paintings. Sarkisian’s subject matter is garbage. By this I mean paper objects about to be discarded. As content, there’s nothing unusual about garbage, particularly when viewed from the vantage that America has long been considered by Europe (and itself) as “God’s junkyard.” There’s even a nobility to garbage under the prevailing sensibility of ecology-through-recycling. But even a sanitation engineer would refuse this refuse. It’s too clean. Which laundry does Sarkisian take his discards to? Does he vacuum his dropcloths? Iron used butcher-paper lengths? dryclean old postcards?

May be sterilized refuse is Sarkisian’s idea of a good joke. And there is some humor in his clean garbage when you think of Idelle Weber’s super-realist garbage landscapes, Ed Kienholz’s sleazy junk assemblages, Manzoni’s canned feces. But these examples of waste and excrement were these artists’ commentary on the sewer quality of modern life. Sarkisian’s work doesn’t have this critical element.

Sarkisian’s strength is that he’s an accomplished painter eminently deploying 3-D illusionism on the picture plane. Where he’s different from Peto and Haberle and the legion of set designers who prepared painted backdrops for early movies is in his illusion, which isn’t supposed to imply there’s something deeper than the picture plane; rather that there’s a relief proceeding from the picture plane. Although no mean achievement, it’s old whine in a new bottle. Sarkisian’s frigid paintings, their devices, their contents, are too cold to handle.

Carrie Rickey