Los Angeles

Richard Sigmund

Koplin Del Rio Gallery

The open road, with its aura of freedom, of the ongoing experience of life, has always been a powerful metaphor in literature and the visual arts. Richard Sigmund’s paintings self-reflexively synthesize (and simultaneously deconstruct) this tradition of road iconography and Action Painting’s gestural gestalt. At first glance, the works appear to be trompe l’oeil scale renditions of street fragments, or linear depictions of anonymous highways receding into the amorphous mists of time. Through tight framing, isolated symbolism, and geometric composition redolent of Kasimir Malevich or El Lissitzky, Sigmund sets up a seemingly successful balance between realism and abstraction, signifier and signified. This equilibrium is an insecure one, however, largely because Sigmund is aware of the arbitrary nature of his metaphors as well as of his process. In 20/65, 1986, for example, he realistically describes the appearance and texture of a well-worn road surface, replete with oil spills, rubber buildup, lane markings, and speed bumps. The piece is dominated by a large white 20-mph speed-limit marker superimposed on the blacked-out limit of 65 mph.

Sigmund’s intent here is to dislocate and contrast the literal and the metaphorical. He creates a false sense of depth by superimposing the two signs (in both their objective and semiotic sense) and alluding to the three-dimensionality of the speed bumps, yet he completely undercuts the illusion through his technique. His use of drips, splatters, and stains to depict a seemingly homogeneous road surface creates a true gestural depth that insists we recognize the image as the layered effect, the residue, of the painting process. This is reinforced by the signification of the speed-limit signs, a metaphorical slowing-down from 65 to 20-mph that parallels the painting’s metamorphosis from work-in-progress, with all the painterly movement that implies, to static object on gallery wall. Kinesis can thus only be rendered through a conceptual interpretation of the static sign, so that the painting, a symbol of complete movement, cannot begin to adequately convey the essence of the road as a vehicle of transience.

Sigmund is clearly encouraging us to see through the false rhetoric of the language of representation, as if his work were intended as an example of how painting cannot exist as a metaphor for reality because of the inherent rift between signifier and signified. In many ways his work is thus about its own failure as painting and process. As a metaphor for movement and freedom it is ultimately tied down by its status as an inert object. By owning up to its own inertia and passivity, however, the work then becomes a catalyst for an examination of its own inadequacies. The onus of interpretation is thrown back on the viewer, and the real journey becomes a conceptual one of semantic inquiry into the ideology of the sign. Sigmund’s painting fails, but in failing it succeeds.

Colin Gardner