Houston

John Halaka

Graham Gallery

What does it mean when an artist inserts himself into the political envelope of Jacques-Louis David’s emblematic painting Death of Marat, 1793, in such a way that we, in turn, are enticed to stand in his place “contemplating revolution?” This latter phrase is the double-edged title of the key work in the series “Prelude to a Pacifist Revolution,” 1985–86, John Halaka’s latest group of encaustic paintings. In Contemplating Revolution, 1986, Halaka excises the body of Marat from the David painting and literally incises it as an ambiguous glyptic image in the middle ground of a horizontal rectangle. To the right, comprising the foreground, a vivid-blue straight chair hides Marat’s left hand and Charlotte Corday’s petition, which he was reading when she assassinated him. On the left, behind Marat’s draped tub, stands an ocher figure, hands on hips, with its head cropped by the upper frame. The succession of overlapping forms leads emphatically away from Marat, toward this anonymous vertical witness.

Without the aid of hard clues, we instinctively identify the empty figure with the artist and—less instinctively—its “position” with Frederic Jameson’s statement in Political Unconsciousness that the political perspective represents “the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation” The painting’s canted perspective sets up the possibility for this interpretation and, further, encourages us to displace that first level of identification with a second, ourselves. This radically shifts our contemplative view of Marat, or at least of Halaka’s incised version of him. Halaka recognizes the need to disrupt the hypnotic state of consensual passivity that has become the default mode of viewing in our image-culture.

Halaka’s parabolic treatment of revolution requires accepting the absence of moral closure. As a whole the exhibition had a consistent allegorical curve similar to that of his previous work, which devoted much of its melancholic reflection to the so-called “vanishing peasants:’ in a mood, if not manner, broadly akin to John Berger’s. All figures in the current paintings are naked and usually maimed; many have barely managed to survive grim losses, as of their heads (Moments of Clarity Can Lead to Despair, 1986) and/or limbs (Tolerant Victim of Oppression #1, 1986). These amputations are symbolic manifestations of the real costs of passivity and unthinking existence paid at the level of the individual. The large forces that grind incessantly in our world are never pictured or named as such; Hal-aka, however, surely intends us to see his lumpen monads as both causal agents and victims of life’s brutal attrition.

The paintings’ material surfaces play a role of primary seduction. Thick blankets of colored wax both solicit and seduce light, entrapping it against the plywood supports before emanating an unmistakable opalescent sensuality In paintings where bare, carved areas of wood are contiguous with encaustic passages (e.g. the body of Marat), a subtle matching and differentiation of two varieties of “flesh” can be detected. And where these two meet at the iconic/contentual horizon, one finds Halaka has allowed the sexual to insinuate itself into the political, sometimes in ways he cannot fully control. Victim of Our Eyes, 1986, for example, is a lovely but timid painting that attempts to deal with sexual objectification and its collusion with traditional esthetics but finds itself not quite equal to the problem of female representation. Although this subtended sexuality somewhat unsettles the work, it nevertheless demonstrates that for Halaka painting is both an act of renunciation (of displays of unquestioned authority) and of coming to terms (with questions of desire and gender awareness). A painting is also—need it be said?—an object of obsession.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom