Columbus, Ohio

Rudolph Baranik

Ohio State University Gallery of Fine Art

Rudolph Baranik’s paintings are portraits of a state of mind. The ashen heads of his “Napalm Elegy” series, from the late ’60s and early ’70s, evoke not only Vietnam but Hiroshima, while the burrowing, fragmentary torsos of White Sleep, 1965–85, and Dark Silence, 1966, recall photographs of survivors of the death camps and Henry Moore’s drawings of Londoners taking shelter in the Underground stations during World War II. In contrast to works of protest like Mauricio Lasansky’s “Nazi Drawings,”1962–66, or Goya’s “Disasters of War,” 1810–14, Baranik’s rigorous compositions sustain a balanced tone appropriate to a classical elegy and, in place of the oppressor’s face, cast lustrously black space. The X-rayed photostats of napalmed bodies and severed heads that Baranik used for his collages (done at the same time as the paintings, but not shown in this exhibition), along with the radiograph from which he derived images of phantom rib cages and intestines, have further resonance as metaphors: as X-rays help to diagnose disease and as photographs might document a crime, Baranik’s darkness—which Donald Kuspit has called "the light of blackness”—seems to expose emotional desolation and moral responsibility. Selected by Jonathan Green (with the help of Donald Kuspit, who also wrote a splendid catalogue essay), this stunning retrospective of Baranik’s work from the past 25 years shows 21 paintings as elements in a continuum that obscures the distinctions between the abstract and the figurative, the inner and the outer, the personal and the political. Seen in the context of our own, present-day horrors (Nicaragua, AIDS, Chernobyl), Baranik’s nightmare landscapes of the sleep of reason and the wakefulness of loss almost assume a half-life; as a consequence, the elegiac becomes indistinguishable from the premonitory.

Central to Baranik’s work is the idea of homage—as a moral obligation and as an esthetic response. While the austere compositions and rich blacks of the “Night Sky Elegies” of the ’70s refer to Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and William Baziotes, the ghostly contours of the “Napalm Elegies” recall Albert Pinkham Ryder and Edvard Munch. In an early work, Homage to Munch #3, 1963, Baranik transmutes the anguished figure of Munch’s The Scream, 1885, into an icon of quiescence, an image of a blessed mother; yet her smoke-plumed gray halo horrifically prefigures the documentary photo of a Vietnamese child on fire. In portraying “the destruction of the I” that Simone Weil saw as suffering’s effect, Baranik has reduced the victim’s mouth to a shadow, as if affliction were greatest when it is mute—when the victim cries, but the oppressor does not hear.

The head burdened with ineffectual consciousness and the body burdened with unrestful sleep are motifs that Baranik continually refashions, frequently as states of mind in which the afflicted wake to death and thus find torment visited upon them. In Full Fathom Five My Comrade Lies, 1985, one of several recent works whose titles are derived from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Baranik invests the image of the severed head of the “Napalm Elegies” with a heightened sense of poignance. Invoking Ariel’s song of death as a sea change and substituting “my comrade” for “thy father,” Baranik attempts to connect with his dead son in a gesture, as Kuspit notes, that yokes the personal with the political. These Are the Pearls That Were His Eyes, 1986, shifts the focus from the long sleep of death to its effects on the body. Thus, Baranik adds to Ariel’s song T. S. Eliot’s subsequent quotation in The Waste Land: the “wondrous” man of The Tempest now looms as a system for converting nutrients, for voiding waste, and for creating, within the luminous roads of the intestinal tract, “pearls”—moons, bombs, heads, eggs, eyes—that evoke the embryonic events which the “womb of time” will deliver.

The convention of the classical elegy maintains that consolation follows from the return of the loved one to nature and the translation of the loved one into art. Such a translation, however, can only be a gesture of intention, in the same way that the painted “texts” of Baranik’s “Words” and “Edge Manifesto” series of the early ’80s were unreadable as statements but legible as prayers. Baranik’s brilliant, chastening work resists interpretation and posits, instead, a belief that paying homage can still be a condition for making art, even if we have wakened to a darkness in which time can no longer be redemptive.

Maureen Bloomfield