Houston

Lynn Randolph

Graham Gallery

To fathom the meaning of most artworks, a viewer must negotiate the perils of interpreting the works by relying on the assumed intentions of the artist, a process that often involves inherent contradictions, potential deceptions, or false premises. Such pitfalls are likely in the case of Lynn Randolph’s paintings because the insistent, even beguiling presence of her spectrally realistic images seems entirely dependent on an unfailing belief in the power of representation to bear symbolic meaning. This utter faith in representation—a faith that has been questioned often in this century—empowers the work through what we might call an economy of pragmatic assumptions. These assumptions are tied to a traditional notion of a healing spirit intrinsic to the artistic process. For Randolph, its countenance is decidedly female—the true face of creative being—and through her art she endeavors to explore feminine archetypes of the cosmic order and the fecundity of nature.

Her work for quite some time has consisted of a variety of psychoanalytic portraits devoted to disclosing essential subjectivity. The pictorial methods she has used have followed a consistent formula whereby the inner spirit of her subjects is manifested in natural phenomena. This code of symbolic identification allows Randolph to fuse her subjects therapeutically with the natural world.

Randolph’s astute linking of the landscape to an invariably human subject has been an unbroken rule in her past production. In this exhibition, however, for the first time there were “pure” landscapes (8 of the 15 paintings). Although these painted deserts are without figures, they are not without significant somatic quality. Vivid renderings of stretched and furled earth, or of odd and lavish outcroppings of desert flora, etc., establish the works’ underlying metaphor of the landscape as body. If the landscape (earth) is understood as corporeal, then natural phenomena—lightning, dust devils, rain squalls—are the psychic forces that spiritually animate nature’s body. The only human “presence” in the work is the implicit observer, the artist as (female) seer, who apprehends these events as portentous signs. What echoes there are here of 19th-century American landscapes of the sublime are thoroughly transposed by Randolph’s emphatic feminization of this pictorial tradition.

For example, Ancient Evening, 1985—with its long canyon leading to an open prospect, and fossilized fish floating in a broad band of darkened sky— represents a thematic preoccupation with symbolic displacement of the sexual, as well as a symbolic condensation of primordial cycles such as decay and renewal. The sexual aspects of Randolph’s work refer generally to creation and reproduction (of which her paintings are an instance).

In most of these paintings, Randolph renders the nature/nurture dialectic and lightly freights it with Freudian implications. This has been perhaps most successfully embodied in The Diviner, 1985, a painting that falls midway between the pure landscapes and the portraits-as-landscapes. Here, Randolph depicts a visionary scene through the use of judiciously selected images extracted from the copious thesaurus of Surrealist iconography. The principal figure, a bare-footed black man holding a divining rod, casts an oblique shadow in the shape of a coyote, and water streams from the end of the divining rod onto the tender shoot of a young corn plant. Rather than divining the presence of water beneath the earth, the rhabdomancer’s instrument issues sustenance that makes the arid desert fertile. Endowed with extraordinary intuitive and spiritual power, the diviner is, of course, the artist/creator, who remains connected to the originary source. Such is the vision Randolph pursues as she operates confidently along the fault line of projected meaning.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom