New York

Robert Yarber

Sonnabend Gallery

If in the last decade artists have rediscovered painting as a projective screen for personal stories, those works that sustain attention transfigure the narratives into larger-than-(private)-life metaphysical discourses. Robert Yarber’s paintings derive from the realms of fantasy and illusion; they share the fantastic dislocations of figurative imagery that are intrinsic to dreams. Yarber’s theme, repeated obsessively over the past few years and amplified by a flourishing lushness, is a fascination with the “Other” side of quotidian consciousness, where heightened desires, fears, and hostilities are acted out. His work could be broadly characterized as portraying the interplay of multiple dualities—primal urges and their repression, mania and sleep, intimate union and immediate danger—which are evoked on a stylistic level by the juncture of a vehement painterliness and calculated compositions.

The works’ staging can be divided between depictions of groups and of couples; the locale is usually an urban hotel with a pool, or a coastal resort; the time of day is night (or more unusually in two of the works, its fading or onset). The group scenes frequently carry less of a charged resonance. There is plenty of violence in the fighting guests and flying chairs of Surge of Power, 1985, or in the couple wrestling on the floor amid oblivious gamblers in the crowded Casino, 1985 (coincidentally, two scenes strikingly reminiscent of the paroxysms enacted by Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal). But these paintings describe a loss of control or a societal disintegration that, perhaps simply because it’s impersonal, seems generalized and diluted next to those paintings that spotlight a couple, and thus, in an exhibition such as this one that contains a number of Yarber’s works, they become merely background environments.

By contrast, the paintings of couples dominated the show because they display greater concentration—both in the sense of a narrower focus and a heightened emotional charge. Regard and Abandon, 1985, and The Tender and the Damned, 1985 (even the titles manifest a dialectic) contain at center a mesmerizing tension that upon analysis bisects into complementaries. Regard and Abandon depicts Yarber’s recurrent image of a couple in midair, high above city lights. In previous works the figures have jumped from an adjacent balcony and appear to be descending rapidly; here they float in the rapture of an embrace, eyes closed to the world. The man’s body is extended stiffly the woman’s relaxed into a curve that is seconded visually by the curve of the marina boulevard below Momentarily unfettered by either physical or emotional gravity weightless and joyous, they are literally above it all. Their free, airborne embrace extends metaphorically to the union of their material bodies with an enveloping cosmos, a motif that connotes a profound romantic sublimity. It is as if a dream of wholeness, but not really; as in Gaston Bachelard’s distinction, it is not a rêve (dream) but a rêverie (musing). There is no dissolution of a wakeful self in the dream-world but the delineation of passionate yearning.

As much as the work is surreal and romantic, the emphatic brushstrokes and vivid, almost lurid colors (which display Yarber’s signature fascination with the distortions of color at night under harsh artificial light) are egoistically expressionistic. Subject to the laws of gravity, the couple’s clinch is necessarily unstable and their bliss ambiguous; their imminent descent is comparable to the original fall of the soul into the material plane of existence. As in The Tender and the Damned, in which a woman hurls herself from a balcony toward a radiant sun, Icarus fashion, as her lover sleeps within the room, Yarber’s subject is the urge to live life at the edge, and its dialectic, the desire to retreat into the unconscious. As reveries on altered states, his achievement is the fixing of a precarious moment through deliberated painting.

Suzaan Boettger