New York

Maxwell Hendler

Asher/Faure, Inc.

There has always been a strong ironic Pop vein running through Maxwell Hendler’s work, ranging from the painstakingly realistic still lifes and landscapes of the ’60s to more recent explorations of language as sign and icon. The early paintings and watercolors were small, almost obsessive studies of mundane objects and deserted, rundown city streets. Hendler’s intense concentration on his subject, combined with a strong clarity of representation, imbued each piece with such a private esoteric importance that the work appeared overly synthetic on the one hand, dreamlike and romantic on the other—much like the Pre-Raphaelite excesses of William Holman Hunt. For example, in Sandpainting, 1970—a virtuoso study of litter on a beach—Hendler combined low relief with trompe l’oeil effects to create a sense of elusive mystery. The objects were rendered with excruciating exactitude, yet the microscopic detail made each element dance before one’s eyes, as if the mise-en-scène were in a constant state of flux.

Within such artificial renditions of a clearly ordered universe, Hendler was careful to inject disruptive icons of conspicuous consumption, whether in the form of common detritus from the artist’s studio—a Kleenex box, a carton of Saltine crackers—or of an advertising label from, say a crate of imported Mexican tomatoes or a wine bottle. For the past couple of years Hendler has focused almost exclusively on such advertising codes, removing all human context and working on a larger scale; this new work echoes the billboard-sized, collagelike structure of James Rosenquist’s paintings.

Hendler’s latest paintings—large urban signs on monochromatic backgrounds—are concerned with language. They look as if they have been appropriated from roadside diners, backstreet music halls, or kindergarten playrooms. Taken out of context, the signs appear oddly arbitrary self-reflexively depicting their own titles like inbred hieroglyphs: Open 24 hours, 1985, Hwy, 1985, Car, 1984, Egg Matzohs, 1985, Bingo, 1984, and 50¢ Off 1985. Hendler is, of course, substituting words for objects—dangling signifiers (themselves new signifieds) as an integrated code of signs. When he does paint a real object, whether it be an ice cream cone or a row of seated camels (actually animal crackers), the style is Pop abstraction, like a stylized billboard or road sign. Hendler relocates the subject into a specific language system with its own preexisting codification.

At first glance, the semiotic angle seems a little too obvious for its own good. Hendler’s paintings seem to occupy that amorphous middle ground between signifier and signified, where the artwork acts as a metaphor for both. In Tonite, 1985, for example, the word is depicted in white letters on a pastel stuccoed ground (Southern California’s ersatz Spanish style) and framed by two real porch lights which indicate that the word is an announcement, perhaps for a concert or other event. The work operates on several levels: it acts as a word, in and of itself; as a reference to an outside “spectacle”; as a series of colored shapes in space (a pastiche of Minimalism, perhaps); and also as an exercise in perspective—the real three-dimensionality of the two light bulbs underlining the flatness of the picture plane and, by extension, the impastoed patina of the pseudostucco. On the one hand, semantic meaning is broken down into visual formalism; on the other, because the work is a painting for sale in an art gallery, new codes are introduced. Tonite is thus a self-reflexive reference to its own commercial status as collectible art, making us aware of Hendler’s painterly expertise and the quality of the work’s construction, and veiling momentarily the semiological implications of the word.

It is clear that Hendler is far too accomplished a painter and craftsman to self-consciously undermine technique. While the exhibit might have attempted to deconstruct the art work as pure sign (by metacommunicating signs as signs, literally and metaphorically), it also reified it as spectacle. Illusion is once again sacred, and representation is restored as an instrument of objectified “truth.” In short, Hendler not only bakes his animal crackers, he gets to eat them too.

Colin Gardner