San Francisco

Raymond Saunders

Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Raymond Saunders’ recent mixed-media works are fragmented reiterations of childhood memories, recent travels and black heritage. The strongest aspect of this work is the drawing. A repertoire of peculiar characters, some shaded in color, others with their faces partially scratched or masked, inhabit these pieces. At first glance they seem naive or childlike, but they do project eccentric and sometimes menacing personas reminiscent of George Grosz or Richard Lindner. The sketches are juxtaposed with found articles: illustrated pages from old nursery rhymes, school time cards, and words and numerals written or rubber stamped across the compositions. Many of the works, particularly the smaller pieces, expand beyond a rectilinear format, forming jagged, feather-edged shapes that float delicately under plexiglass.

The work on view ranges from small, tonally light collages to larger compositions which incorporate broad planes of enamel as background, to full-scale paintings (6 by 6 feet) in which the collage technique is sometimes abandoned in favor of totally abstract motifs. Saunders is an extremely facile artist who knows how to combine materials in a skillful manner. However, his art is often undermined by a proclivity for pretty colors and pleasing shapes. Although he employs discarded materials and sketches in what appears to be an improvisational or casual form, the final work comes across as keenly calculated art, obvious to the point of being indulgent and visually unchallenging.

More problematic than the style of the work is the way Saunders disregards the contextual aspects of the found objects. The artist outlines a nostalgic, silver spoon childhood with Dick and Jane illustrations et al. But he also invests elements of black cultural oppression—Sambo and Black Mumbo, with a similarly nostalgic aura. Black heritage also takes the form of a mixed media homage to Jack Johnson and references to Africa and Harlem. Nevertheless, Saunders’ handling of this content remains noncommittal. Jack Johnson is only a well-drawn figure against a brilliant blue background, and Sambo and Mumbo are notations in passing, on a par with Dick and Jane. When Sambo and Mumbo occupy an obviously affectionate place in a black artist’s oeuvre, one can’t help but feel that the artist’s relationship to his heritage is somewhat out of sync. Not every artist desires to play social critic, but to make visually palatable the vestiges of one’s own cultural oppression seems problematic at best.

Hal Fischer