New York

Robert Yarber

Sonnabend Gallery

Recently, there has been much critical analysis of the formal relationship between art and the mass media, particularly the movies, television, and advertising. Among the accepted theories, one suggests that the relentless bombardment of mass media results in a numbing of moral sensitivity, and that an artist who wishes to undermine this corrosive fulsomeness must employ tactics derived from the media and thus reveal the extent to which its forms control our perceptions. This very neat solipsistic argument applies to some artists whose work relates to media images, but not all. Robert Yarber is one of these exceptions.

The exhibition consisted of one pastel and ten large, horizontal oil paintings, most of which are in a slightly elongated format that recalls the wide-screen aspect ratio of the cinema. These dreamlike scenes feature floating human figures—tubular balloon forms with sausagelike limbs—whose contours are painted in outline against a dark ground, with details daubed in, giving them an unnatural, ghostly appearance. Yarber employs a limited number of garish hothouse hues, often in pairs of complementary colors against the dark ground. The colors work as jarring accents, which has the effect of “lighting” the figures from within, and the deliberately awkward rendering evokes their psychological state. An atmosphere of intense isolation pervades all of the works. The artist frames these scenes in such a way that we feel as if we were intimate observers, perhaps spectators in a darkened movie theater.

Power and Rapture, 1987, for example, is suffused with the bright reds, yellows, and oranges of sunset. We seem to be hovering in the air, between a helicopter flying overhead and a hotel-lined beach resort below. Like us, an upside-down figure floats between the helicopter and the ocean. Who is this figure? What is our relationship to him—or is it a her? Yarber’s paintings are full of similar questions, which he uses to disrupt familiar narratives. Crush, 1987, shows a man and woman floating above a bed in a darkened room. Is this an image of fleshly ecstasy or of a disembodied ghostly state? Or both? Yarber plays with the concept of gravity, suggesting that the escape from its force is emblematic of a false sense of power, a terrifying freedom, or a loss of control, and making us more aware of our own earthbound existence.

While the realm of Yarber’s paintings may be located in the mass media, especially the movies, his images are not simply appropriated and he avoids familiar media devices such as overlays and collage. These works, by implicating the viewer (including the artist himself), explore both our fascination and complicity with the news and its pictures. The media may bombard us with images, but we, in turn, have become all too willing consumers. Through formal devices of framing and color, as well as a disturbingly antic imagination, Yarber examines various states of being and the whole notion of perception. His paintings ask us to think about what it means to be a viewer, to be someone who observes but does not participate.

Reviewed by John Yau.