New York

Stephen Ludlum

Oil And Steel Gallery

Stephen Ludlum is what you might call a Papa artist—part Pop, part Dada, but not either. I don’t usually like anesthetic painting but there’s something I like here. There’s nothing pretty, nothing particularly witty—but there is a sort of meditative removal that rings a bell in abeyance.

I thought of a line by Lou Reed: “the absurd courts the vulgar.” In a surreal world the absurd is vulgar. Here the courtship is over, and so is the honeymoon. Beyond the absurd is a riddle.

Ludlum’s stuff is about creative erasure, mystical delimitation, reductio trans absurdum, nuts-and-bolts mandalas. Kitsch au courant has an arbitrary edge to it—campy found objects are everywhere; Ludlum’s diagrams, black blueprints, and digital lotteries aren’t campy. Despite analogous tactics they have a stark, funky, cabalistic luckiness about them. They are bound to inspire numbers players somewhere down the line. They seem to reveal the hidden, mystical consequences of the arbitrary. These are not found but forged objects.

The geometric groupings in the black and white acrylic paintings are like plans for ideas—hieroglyphs in progress. There were eight paintings in the show, all but one from 1983—four untitled, three titled Death of the President, one Buy One, Get One Free. The latter title would seem to refer to a bonus color panel added to a black and white diptych; this “free” panel is a blue and pink WPA-ish expressionist rendering of a fedora-hatted man facing a volcano, his arms open. The left black and white panel is a close-up fist done in David Salle–style tracing, and the central panel is a metaphysical cartoon, a sort of Francis Picabia-esque heckling of the muses in which a statue on a pedestal, blasted apart at the shins, gives up a diagrammatic ghost. The pedestal is imperfect and it bears a stock number.

The largest Death of the President also features a blasted statue—this one decapitated, with a hand and a sword missing too. Above the stock-numbered, ruined statue is a panel that’s like M.C. Escher without the tricks—a masonry canal filled with shattered tree trunks in which a cylinder and a prism seem to float, their geometric perfection unnatural among the dead wood.

I’m not really sure why I like these paintings, which may be a reason in itself. They have a deadpan charm that’s hard to pinpoint but easy to elaborate on. I guess they’re diagrams for departure—resonant hieroglyphic puns and cross-referential rebuses. They aren’t answers but good, all-purpose questions.

Glenn O’Brien