Derek Boshier

This “idle passion,” painting, continues to be surrounded by excessive boosterism which, in its indiscriminate energy, obscures the accomplishments of those who successfully command the medium to tasks beyond the narcotic celebration of painting itself. The task Derek Boshier sets for painting, at least in his most recent, large-scale work, is the assembling of irrepressibly odd actors, props, and settings drawn freely (but not arbitrarily) from the vast cabinet of Western culture as well as from the curious recesses of his private history. The business of the painting is the playing out of Boshier’s version of the grand imagination, which may be no less than a rebellious wit modeled on the likes of Laurence Sterne.

In The Wave, 1984, Boshier works out an ad hoc theory of sorts, that every story has its painting. In this case, the tale is one he has told many times: it concerns his encounter in Wales with an amateur painter who believed the ultimate challenge to be faced by an artist was the portrayal of “waves crash ing against rocks.” But that pictorial imperative provides only an incongruent setting in which Boshier constructs a play on homonymic images: the ruin of a “nave” (based on Salisbury Cathedral) isolated at the left, and a “knave” (a naked male wearing a fool’s cap) wading into the sea at the right. The naked knave recurs in equally fantastic circumstances in The Exhibition, 1984. Here we find him in the austere neon sanctuary of a Dan Flavin exhibition (at the Corcoran Gallery of Art), armed with white candles which he appears to be depositing about the gallery. As a dramatis persona the knave represents the combined character types of the innocent and the rascal; a man of humble origin but one given to trickery—a fitting definition of the artist as conceived by Boshier. Especially in his large works, Boshier has been busy disrupting the accepted order of things in paradise. Disruption for him, admittedly. is a gesture wherein imagination troubles the expectations of reason and habit, but never as an act of cultural malice. Invariably it is the consequence of a visual curiosity that delights in staging chance encounters of an aberrant, symbolic kind.

Busy in Paradise, 1984, displays Boshier’s sanguine temper in vivid tableau style. The exuberance of his painting-what we fondly call facture seems to reflect a remarkably persistent optimism that in this work virtually breaks into song: several species of birds not easily found in Peterson Field Guide, including one that sits atop the head of a gypsy fiddler wearing a brilliant red dress and high-top sneakers, share center stage with a quartet of black minstrels in white suits and shades, bearing a distant reference to the figures in Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Blind Leading the Blind, 1568. In the background, a Joan Miró sculpture and a mask by Pablo Picasso hover ambiguously. Boshier’s usual tendency to load his surfaces with heavy paint is supplanted in this unrestrained painting by an urge to pack the theatrical landscape with a surfeit of allusions.

Busy in Paradise amuses but audibly misfires. For us this loading of paint and symbol works much more successfully in Boshier’s version of a space odyssey. Heroic Encounter, 1983. Here, fragments of antique statuary. an arm holding a closed umbrella, an oblique crucifix, a capless knave, familiar space hardware, and an astronaut tumble gently in a gravity-free void above the cloud-covered earth. It is tempting to read this painting in the manner of an astral projection of hermeneutics, but perhaps it is our obsession that insists upon seeing these shards of orbiting culture as slowly turning tropes. In Boshier’s adaptation, Phidias’ Dionysus becomes an Apollonian figure—earth god becomes sun god—and he assumes command of a wholly modem mythological mission: a S.I.O.P. (a “single integrated operational plan”), as inscribed on the disembodied hand in the lower right. It is a wry signature phrase, especially when applied to the knavish enterprise of Boshier’s recent work.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom