New York

Justen Ladda

Willard Gallery

It may be Justen Ladda’s outsider perspective on the English language (he is German) that gives him the enthusiasm for its multiple connotations visible in these paintings. Ladda loves language and in these paintings he explores how it works and how it doesn’t work. The show was titled “Word Paintings,” and, in fact, most of the paintings here were portraits of words or phrases.

To Ladda the pun is a mystery of religious proportions. In the painting Buying Power, 1983, a field is covered with the black-and-white corpses of fallen soldiers; on the horizon is the phrase “cold heros.” The connection between the martyr and the sandwich is a Zen-like point of contemplative departure.

Though Ladda loves verbal ambiguity, he often makes it obvious where he stands—literally; that is, some of his paintings play games with perspective and are coherent only when seen from one vantage point—the point from which, apparently, the image was photographically projected and then painted on to the canvas. In don’t ask, 1983, Ladda has painted a Universal Price Code over a broken china urinal and a sculpture head. It reads as a UPC from dead ahead, but from any other angle the lines are wild and jagged. In Kulcher, 1984, the cartoon-style word “Shish-Kebab” reads correctly from dead center, but depart from the center line of the painting and the letters distort, since they are not only on the background wood panel, but also on the “shish kebab” of skewered objects that floats in front of them. Behind these objects are their blank shadows—blank areas the shape of a toy car, an alarm clock, a high-heeled shoe, a Virgin Mary statue, a bust of Tchaikovsky, each visible from all angles but one. Ladda is illustrating the physics and the applied physics, or perhaps the ballistics, of meaning.

Most of the paintings here were presented in formats that seem to derive from primary schoolbooks. A word appears in a dictionarylike typeface and above it is an illustration of that word. In several cases the illustration appears “whited out,” as if it were being erased, whitewashed perhaps, to make way for an update. In the illustrative panel above the word “god,” barely visible through the white overpainting, is a mouth and below it a long gray beard radiating a silver halo. Below, in the corner, is the Wise potato-chip logo—the word “wise” and a familiar cartoon owl.

These are innocent paintings, earnest even when they are witty. Even the jokiest and campiest pieces, such as the large praying-hands sculpture Tide, 1985, made of partly painted-over Tide, Fab, Ivory Snow, and Clorox boxes, have an aura of redemption about them. Ladda seems to be out to save the literal and to illuminate the archetype behind the cliché. He is making hip hieroglyphics that explore the resonance between alternate meanings, between denotations and connotations, and deliberate and accidental images.

Glenn O’Brien