New York

Paul Thek

Brooks Jackson Gallery lolas

Paul Thek has always been a culturally responsive artist. His The Tomb—Death of a Hippie, 1967, was a sculptural roman à clef which summed up and buried the era which, for all its countercultural frisson, was more accurately characterized by Altamont than Woodstock. Thek’s narrative-realist stance—with its autobiographical content, architectural context, and ritual implications—also proved a significant compass reading for ’70s art. Following Death of a Hippie (the “Hippie” was, incidentally, a wax cast of Thek), the artist exiled himself to Europe where he began making transient assemblage sculpture. Given his alien status, the work was peculiarly correct in its improvisational energy. The capstone of the European period was Thek’s eloquent Ark, Pyramid constructed for Documenta 5 in 1972. The piece had a raw, decorative panache that looked like a collaboration between Clarence Schmidt and Robert Stackhouse. Beached on a ground of rippling sand, the Ark was overgrown with moss and trees, partially covered by a truncated lumber Pyramid, stocked with stuffed animals, postcards, drawings, and capped with a magician’s top hat. It was a dense, maddeningly romantic exercise in auto-visual sculpture. Over the next four years, Thek produced a series of drawings (many done on pages from the Paris Herald Tribune) which, in their ability to evoke the perverse gratification of chaos, could have been Dadaist illustrations for Melmoth the Wanderer.

In 1977, Thek returned to America for “Processions,” a one man exhibition at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The show’s featured attraction was Thek’s poetic synthesis of Tatlin’s Monument to the III International and legend’s Tower of Babel. Set in an enormous sandbox studded with pseudoModerne office chairs, the Tower rose some 45 feet in the gallery. It was constructed over Uncle Tom’s Cabin (a separate but equal structure), and reached by crossing the Burning Bridge, a small horizontal pyre of bound logs. The merger of artistic, architectural, and literary sources—as inviting as they might sound—were, in “Processions,” uninvitingly morose. In her catalogue essay, Suzanne Delehanty commented: “The Tower epitomizes man’s technological achievement but with the sinister suggestion that, to Thek at least, technology raises the sinful Babylon in a new form.” Thek had come home, but it was to Kafka’s Amerika, not de Tocqueville’s. Still, “Processions” remains a fascinating expatriate response to the nihilism of the post-Watergate years.

Thek’s recent “installation,” billed as an exhibition of “Small Paintings” was, in fact, an insidious reaction to the “$9.99, none higher” commercial pluralism of the late-’70s. The artist’s 18 paintings (8 1/2 by 11 1/2 inch average) were displayed in sham gilt frames (a bamboo motif predominated) with goose-necked museum lamps attached, and punch-tape labels substituting for brass plaques. Delicate gilt chairs (perfect for a bridge party at Versailles) were arranged around a drop dead orchid centerpiece facing the paintings. The intensely theatrical lighting on the chairs and flowers made them, at first glance, the focus of the exhibition. The paintings, individually and discreetly lit by their museum lamps, fulfilled an oddly secondary function. Yet, in their wildly eclectic assortment of 20th-century styles and subjects—Impressionism, Pointilism, Abstract Expressionism, Primitivism, etc.—the paintings also serve as deadly bon mots. Subject matter ranged from a technicolored Bambi’s Father up on His Bluff, to a Cézannesque Apple, to a barbecue-grid of Hot Potatoes, to a faux-naïf Snake on Skis, to a Gustonesque Periscope. The installation strategy pitted explicitly literal titles against inconsistently forthcoming images and esthetics. The confluence of visual and verbal clichés, high and low art references, careened directly into postmodernism’s “poisoned fig” school of art (it looks great, but if looks could kill . . . ).

Thek’s “Small Paintings” installation was a neo-Dadaist romp. Using pared- down, ironic references to his earlier work (chairs for contemplation, subject matter from the newspaper drawings—even Bambi had been aboard the Ark in ’72), Thek addressed himself to the homogenizing din of ’70s art in an act of subtle subversion. Thek has always been an artist more heralded by hind- sight than great expectations. That, in 1966, Sontag dedicated Against Interpretation to him strikes me as something of a prophetic coup. In ten years, I’d hate not to have seen this installation.

Richard Flood