New York

Jedd Garet

Jedd Garet’s new paintings, all from 1987, are in the same realm of mock abstraction as the works of Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe, and company, but they have an edge of whimsy, wit, and delicacy that makes their irony less leaden and obtuse. Garet’s paintings are more transparently in the tradition of visionary capriccio—which is the way John Graham thought what we now call Abstract Expressionism ought to be comprehended—and more authentically an advance in the idea (and not just the manner) of abstraction.

Garet works in a mode that might be called surreal-baroque abstract, with a touch of rococo potential. The term “baroque” originally meant an irregular pearl, an elegant imperfection; and the term “rococo” designated the fretted, sinuous forms of Louis XV furniture. What Garet gives us is a baroque sense of imperfect visionary flight on a surrealist base—a sense of incongruous abstract forms mysteriously converging, inhabiting the same pictorial space for no apparent reason. And like Baroque art, his paintings are full of pathos tending to violence, distilled into a witty but nonetheless extreme pictorial gesture. That’s where the rococo touch comes in; the final effect is ornamental, in the best sense: each picture is a kind of fretwork of lighthearted touches, a playful network of light and shade, conveying a sense of emotional peculiarity and sinuousness.

Ghost Lump shows this to perfection. It consists of just a few deft, well-placed “dark” strokes—one a halo—around a white lump set against a quasi-chartreuse field, through which it achieves a sense of three-dimensionality without actually embodying it. The lively strokes articulate the flat form and its equally flat space but leave them unmoved, neutral. Something analogous happens in Master Shape, whose black, completely opaque central form is both flat and rounded, hard- and soft-edged. Surrounding this bizarre, unwholesome shape is another halo, this time bathed in a luminous aura, as if it somehow—inexplicably—emanated from the dark form set within it. Their relationship is not at all clear, but the conventional aura confirms the black shape’s weirdness and punctuates its unwholesome visionary condition. The “master shape” embodies strangeness and anguish, although it symbolizes nothing. Equally effective, in similar ways, are Nine Day Wonder, Rise and Fall, and Hurray and Shudder. The power of all of these works lies in the dialectic between their complex inner reality and their hallucinatory, almost immaterial appearance.

In Success with Roses, Garet too obviously shows his Surrealist heritage—in this case, through an Arp-like amoebic shape. It is redeemed because it hovers on the border between the literal and the metaphoric. One can idolize it for itself or, in another kind of idolatry, read it as a new Birth of Venus. More obviously ambitious are The End of Desire and Eight Reasons, where Garet pulls out all the stops of his visionary dialectic. In these tour-de-force diptychs, Garet gives the capriccio a certain grandiosity without losing its delicacy. They show us how, despite his cleverness—the cunning of his unreason—Garet remains an innocent believer in the old ideal of the transcendence that abstraction can afford, a gem of transcendence that has always been latently baroque.

Reviewed by Donald Kuspit.