New York

Leon Golub

Susan Caldwell Gallery

Thinking of politics in relation to Gerry Morehead’s work might seem unexpected, maybe even unwarranted, but the strength of the work lies in its ability to deflect one’s attention in such a way. Leon Golub’s work, on the other hand, insists that it be taken in only one way, as a political statement, and while that insistence is a source of charm, it is also the work’s greatest weakness.

Golub’s recent paintings have an undeniable grandeur, a convincing simplicity of conception and execution. Working on a large scale he places huge figures against a dull red ground, his dry, scraped paint working curiously against the heroic quality this scale gives the grotesque realism of his drawing. His characters are ugly, unpleasant men and women, mostly lounging around, leering at each other and at us, only occasionally engaged in any identifiable activity. And even then, when they are clearly up to no good, there is an almost tangible detachment, a sense of boring old business as usual. Golub’s characters are clearly villains, and yet he presents them with a neutral sort of sympathy which encourages us, the viewers, to identify with them. This is an interesting twist on the procedures of most political art, which usually asks us to identify with the victims of oppression, but it is a twist with a point. Golub wants to implicate us, to remind us that somewhere down the line our prosperity is ensured by such agents of oppression—not perhaps in this country, but in the satellite states that buttress our economy.

But if this were all Golub were doing his work would be no more than sophisticated posturing, and it is more than that. Golub makes it so by returning our attention to the esthetic context, for it is part of his intention to demonstrate that the discourse of culture can also become an agent of oppression. I believe this to be a healthy ambition, but it is one that must be addressed with more subtlety than Golub brings to bear. It is not sufficient to posit an identification of mercenaries and torturers with “American painting”—large scale, bold in color and design, informal (the paintings are unstretched), and thus somehow free. Golub wants us to acknowledge the connection between brute enforcement of ideological agreement and a subtler coercion, but by choosing the means of overstatement and oversimplification he repeats the error he would warn us of, browbeating us with his observations.

In the end Golub’s convincing simplicity turns out to be too convincing, too straightforward. It is too much the textbook example, and as a result too easily dismissed as illustration. What has happened is that Golub has thought himself very carefully through an argument, but refused, or failed, to take it to its conclusion. The paintings thus have an expected look to them, the safety of well-applied logic. They betray too much faith in the conventions of painting, and are thus betrayed by them. Golub has come to understand that painting, or any part of cultural production, can be used repressively, but will not accept that he cannot therefore continue to use it in a straightforward manner without his meaning being distorted or dismissed. These paintings ultimately fail, then, but it is a grand and good-hearted failure.

Thomas Lawson