Doug Anderson

Stux Gallery

This was Doug Anderson’s fourth and strongest show at this gallery. Gone are the cutesy cartoon characters, which offered at least a pretense at viewer identification. Instead, Anderson deepens his exploration of the crisis of meaninglessness in contemporary culture with an ever more opaque constellation of imagery. He suggests that the current disorder and lost credibility preclude (while ironically encouraging) the comforts (or dogma) of interpretation.

Inclusion in last year’s Whitney Biennial and several solo New York shows (one running concurrently to this show) have won a wider audience for Anderson’s peculiar menagerie of pop-culture imagery (Nancy and Sluggo, Popeye, pornography, television commercials, etc.) placed in unreadable spatial contexts. The satisfying anchor of narration wanes in the current work, implying simultaneously the absence of meaning as well as a more complex perception of its nature.

An entrance was provided by the seemingly traditional still life Citizens Patrol, 1986. The initial reassurance of classical motifs (a jug of wine, et al.) is belied by the amorphous spatial enclosure of a dissolving boxlike “room”; by the “fruit,” a web of repulsive, grenadelike gourds spilling onto a diffusing tablecloth; and by the garish video-violet/yucky-yellow television-test-tube palette. Confronting this art-historical icon, the longed-for familiar object that no longer serves, Anderson analogizes the current reactionary milieu (present as surely in “neo-geo” as in the resurgence of fundamentalism) while attesting to its appalling inadequacy.

Another crucial work, How Can I Rise When You Will Not Fall, 1986, teeters between intelligibility and formlessness. Characteristically merging Renaissance, Oriental, and push-pull perspectives, the paintings left foreground delineates an unoccupied but homey scene of bed, smoking cigarette, and telephone. Directly above, a capsizing ship seems to sink into the domestic enclave. In a stage-set “background,” schematic elements of sky, mountain, and water, sprinkled with cryptic objects—a burning crutch, an insect cannister—rupture into jagged zigzags, also merging into the bed scene. Taking a cue from the melodramatic title, the image may be viewed as an indictment of the doctrinaire insistence on a singular world view, or ism, within the art world; as the larger culture’s inability to tolerate ambiguity; as the chaos of the “other” imploding on the home front; or, finally, as nothing at all.

Paintings such as Narcotic, 1986, break into full-scale disunion. Narrative interpretation is no longer an option, as a huge rabbit, a Disneyesque animated broom, a floating iron, and a cheery anthropomorphic sausagelike body organ absurdly coexist in a nebulous science-fiction valley. Tightly structured composition unattached to discernible content, a luscious but methodically blanketing crosshatched surface, and familiar yet ludicrous aberrant objects invite—yet elude—the viewer’s desire to own or codify the image.

Despite this aggressive refutation of congruity, Anderson’s is not a vision of existential despair. Rather, he suggests a complex paradox—that although our need for structure may impede understanding (leading to bad art and the tragedies of dogma), still, within a context devoid of rigid definitions, the compelling possibility of apprehending meaning remains.

Nancy Stapen