Mill Valley

Al Payne

In his approach to painting AI Payne seeks to fuse premeditated structure and spontaneous expression, synthesizing systematic and intuitive processes in a kind of conceptualized action painting. One work in this group of 15 dynamic paintings, on large canvases and on paper, stands out; here the finely balanced tension between these two mentalities is catalyzed into a breathtaking image which both shows the immediacy of controlled passion and evokes a multivalent symbolism.

The painting’s rather literal title, Tree, 1984, is only a skeletal reference to the richly metaphoric quality of the composition. Payne’s deliberate structure derives from his choice and application of color: primary and secondary hues plus white, black, and brown are grouped in trios or quartets which are applied consistently and sequentially in short overlapping strokes. The actual forms created by this procedure are left to chance improvisation. Payne, who is also a musician, likens this method to that of music, in which a signature (key, time) is used to determine basic elements of form but an expressive component in the playing of the notes is allowed. The result in works like Tree can be seen as a nonobjective, fluid, allover overlapping and interweaving of strokes with amorphous areas of dominant colors. The surface can be imagined expanding outward from all its edges, as in both color—field work and Jackson Pollock’s allover paintings. At the same time, however, Payne’s composition suggests overlapping, bulbous, undulating areas of shallow projecting and receding space. Considering its title, the image could refer to a gnarled tree-trunk , but its nonrepresentational abstractness suggests more an organic “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas put it in a 1934 poem, an élan vital which “drives the water through the rocks/Drives my red blood . . . ” The vitalist allusions and the undulating composition, somewhat controlled through the regularity of the brushstrokes and the repeated interweaving of color, together create a felicitously rich image.

Some of the other paintings here approach this union of conception and painterly action—The Beast and Fireface, both 1984, for example—but others use a disappointing coalescence into representational illusionism to present those “cosmic” organic energies. The Birth, 1984, showing an infant’s head emerging from a reclining female, and Woodwind, 1985, with serpentine strokes swirling around a thick tree-trunk, are more materialized and conventionalized attempts to evoke the profound forces suggested with far more subtlety in Tree. However, Payne’s depth of expression has grown immensely since his turgid paintings of five years ago, when cerebralized geometric structure dominated potential evocative meaning, and this growth is another reason the show was a pleasure to view.

Suzann Boettger