Will Northerner

Zolla/ Liberman Gallery

After a tour of the galleries on New York’s Lower East Side, I returned to Chicago with a new perspective from which to gauge this city’s images and ways of seeing. Just as the Lower East Side has been treated in the press as a self-contained sphere emulating all that is good and bad in the larger art-marketing arena, so Chicago art has been compartmentalized as “regional.” Its separate identity partly reflects differences in style and subject matter from the art of the rest of the country; successive generations of Chicago imagists, who hold the copyright on figurative allegiance, have elegantly coded a street-smart, wise-cracking, cartoonlike visual lingo. The question is whether that separate identity is based not just on stylistic traits, but on substantial work, and here it appears that Chicago’s version of neoexpressionism, given its genealogy, cannot be dismissed as coattailing. Energy, that currently overused label signaling positive virtues while avoiding content, has always been a necessary ingredient of Chicago art, but has never been a sufficient merit in itself.

Will Northerner’s paintings are very hip and very confident. He could become the visual exemplar of intertextuality. His appropriations have gone beyond indiscriminacy; they cut and paste almost every current formal process and narrative device-stick figures, histrionic subject matter, anxious moods, neoexpressionist élan, segmented compositions, spray paint, and three-dimensional accessories attached to the canvas. Northerner has consumed it all, and with some talent plus a great deal of energy has given it all back in layers and layers of imagery and layers and layers of paint. particularly well orchestrated in a complicated work entitled Probe the Hydra, 1984. Techniques of superimposition and shadowy drawing no longer indicate any specific influence of David Salle, for they have dissolved into a generalized compositional convention. Northerner draws on the surfaces of atmospheric washes, which in this exhibition were predominantly raspberry sherbet pink, and blue; occasionally he sprays on a final coat of gold and silver frosting.

The flare and manic sensibility of these works suggest the self-conscious posturings of a teenager, but this is the effect more of a helter-skelter style than of adolescent pain. Northerner’s sensibility seems generationally bound in free-floating angst rather than determined by psychological probings or political consciousness. Although in a gallery handout he says that he paints to ward off madness and that his art is a sort of “basket weaving,” his work is neither tortured nor unconscious. A sense of attack by violent powers is accompanied by the requisite accessories—guns, knives, bloodstains, and shrieking mouths; Northerner’s work is not about initiation and determination but about response and reaction—to stylistic and psychic forces, to everything he sees around him. His pictures are deft and engaging, but they can’t move us beyond their synthetic materials and synthetic emotions. Even the pa int doesn’t soak into the canvas but slides on the surface like oil on water, creating intriguing albeit accidental patterns of translucent color.

Northerner has worked as an illustrator, and his economic linear caricatures and renditions of gesture are the most convincing elements of his painting. Some graphic exercises, for exam-pie small black and white works on wood and linoleum (one entitled Diabolical Swarming Stinging Insects, 1982), are as intense as the paintings are diaphanous, and they work to good effect when applied to make prints on the surfaces of paintings. The insects who crawl through Northerner’s nightmares are latter-day equivalents of the Surrealist phantasms inhabiting the phosphorescent inscapes of Roberto Matta. Northerner’s illustrative skills also serve in a poignant painting called Bunting, 1983, where two sad-faced men with antlers bow their heads toward each other to form an arch in the center of the canvas. These loose-necked Dr. Seuss types have appeared in earlier fictions, as has a more overt self-portrait of the artist as boy. Northerner makes the best of provocative discrepancies between a strident tone, skeletal figures resembling an Oskar Kokoschka self-portrait, and luscious spun-sugar coatings. With all their overloaded imagery and language, his paintings depend finally on energetic ambiguity.

Judith Russi Kirshner