New York

Paul Thek

Iolas-Jackson Gallery

Two things in particular have marked Paul Thek’s output over the years: a leveling tendency that employs a polemical indiscriminateness of sources, methods, and materials, and a compulsion to say what is generally being left unsaid. Except for their consistent medium (acrylic on newspaper) and uniform size, these new small works are no different. Thek’s personae have often been underdogs—Bo Jangles is a good example; here he uses a simile rather than a mask, but even that fights the decidedly not conceptual, decidedly phallic contemporary current.

In The Mind as a Clitoris and related pieces, the feminine is established as simultaneously “other” and self. Here, the words are scrawled in reverse under a faceless portrait with nimbus; in I am so lovely, that phrase parades inverted across a white form, a visual epigram of narcissism looking at itself in the mirror. The piece which consists of the notation “1 to 1” is a bridging of an illusory distance, for how is one “1” different from another “1”? This collapse throws doubt on other supposed oppositions, one of which is that of writing and painting. Thek combines them, representing them as, alternately, a beautiful surface of unfathomable calligraphy (a composition that looks like but isn’t a page of Sanskrit or Hebrew), an imaginative flight (birds in formation), and a contradiction between prestigious symbols and blunt message (in Vénüs pissing, the pompous accent and diaeresis make exotic, exalt, while the information conveyed is quite the contrary).

The references are as eclectic as ever, but in these apparently rambling, diaristic jottings the old struggle to eliminate boundaries between the one and the many, the sacred and the profane seems to have a tentative issue, in itself an unfashionable move. There’s a repeated invocation of the visionary, the ecstatic, albeit one whose very articulation is critical of itself. When pictures of pink elephants and Harvey-like rabbits are engaged as signs of the visionary, we are on shaky ground in talking about tantric transcendence. And all of these works are what Ree Morton liked to call “wrist paintings,” casual, tongue-in-cheek mimicries of traditional easel oils. Yet there is a grouping of strongly man-dalic and tantric diagrams that, in a way, caps the various orgasmic volcanoes and hallucinations. Thek’s painting style lends itself to Eastern comparisons, a sort of “let it be” nonchalance breeding an elegant accuracy of stroke. Certainly, it would be safe to say that in the major ellipses between the pieces here and the frequently indecipherable representations they show, this work upholds the Tantric belief in the image as a “manifested sign of the unknowable,” which is to say a visual aid to enlightenment.

Jeanne Silverthorne