New York

Irving Petlin

Odyssia Gallery

Irving Petlin sets up rich structures with metaphorical properties that link him to such European symbolists as Klimt and Redon. Although a figurative artist, Petlin achieves the mystery Redon described as the “effect of the abstract line acting directly on the human spirit.” The dominant image is of an arid yet germinatng landscape. These disturbing settings seem to function as a metaphor for man’s journey; figures and figure groups are archetypal—family, child, survivor. Petlin’s work is allegorical, but the emotional drama is conveyed less by the symbolic narrative than by the paintings’ dreamlike physicality and sumptuous chromatic structure.

Petlin calls these landscapes “postatomic,” and indeed, matter has been drastically broken up. Unnerving images communicate a conception of Nature enacting antithetical processes of decay and biological growth. A cosmos of dissolution and change and a sense of a tenuous contract between man and nature comes across through myriad breaks in form and gradations of color. Nothing is whole. The figures’ contours, changing from sharp to indeterminate, encompass amoebic or vegetal configurations in elaborate mosaic patterns; similar interlocking ellipses of paint, bubbling like alien essences, appear in the cliffs and rocks.

Petlin has written about pastel as the “minerals of the earth.” Soft, perishable, pastel is used by Petlin to dramatize his figures’ fragility. His use of oils shows a similar sensitivity to the medium; his colors have a quality of gritty particles of matter, as if they were ground out of the ancient earth. In Song of the Water and the Child poisonous yellows change to radiant antique golds, like the backgrounds of medieval religious painting.

Is this unstable Nature a world where myths of creation are enacted or a rotting world asking to be reborn? Whatever it is, subtle and active brushwork embodies Petlin’s vision of matter and spirit as fluid. Petlin applies paint with varying densities and luminosities, evoking an unbearably shifting reality. Areas alter from mat and oppressive to shiny, to those emanating unexpected vibrations of light. In Clay Fountain . . . Family, 1975, sinister columnar forms resembling bomb explosions move with slow inevitability out of the picture frame, patches of warm color erupting through a chalky, porous blue.

Earlier works by Petlin in the recent exhibition otter some clues as to his point of view, for example the vast and menacing painting (8 by 20 feet) entitled The Burning of Los Angeles ( 1965–1967), which was inspired by the Watts riots. This work shows man enmeshed in an angry and apocalyptic jungle of dark aggressive forms. One feels that Petlin’s once-political involvement in specific human events has become universal, but that his “postatomic” view remains one determined by our immediate 20th-century history of violence. In the “Clay Lake” series there is a veiled savagery in the columnar fires that move relentlessly out of these mosaics of acid color. At the same time, the emotion conveyed by the figures’ poses and gestures is one of intense commitment, even tenderness.

The compositions, finally, are dramatically affirmative and mitigate the somber impression of decomposing matter. Petlin contrasts areas that contract and expand, those ethereal and those solid. While these works as a whole have a floating rhythm, resembling dreams of elemental forces in transformation, Petlin’s horizontal forms such as cliffs and figures’ arms hold the space solidly, with qualities of weight as well as of movement.

There is certainly something brutal in Petlin’s view of man and nature. But in technique and vision, matter has been spiritualized and spirit made sensuous. In the pulsing open spaces and endless horizons there is an old fashioned, even Old Testament view of nature as the creation, as ongoing drama and revelation.

Margaret Sheffield