Rick Arnitz

Gallery 44

A lot of what Frank Stella called “suburban abstraction” crops up on the West Coast because abstract art has even less of a history here than elsewhere. But once in a while, you encounter indigenous abstract work that can hold its own in any context. The recent work of Oakland painter Rick Arnitz, which turned up at an out-of-the-way cooperative gallery, is a case in point.

Arnitz’s painting appears to be backed by no program or theory. In fact, until recently, his work was goofy with images depicting what looked like landscapes filled with boulders or possibly licorice gumdrops. His interest in these images seems to have given way to an interest in the effects created by certain tools—such as paint rollers—rather than to some intellectual imperative concerning the integrity of abstraction.

The illusionistic frames set everything within these pictures at a distance from the viewer. What is striking is that Arnitz doesn’t sentimentalize this disengagement. He fills the enframed fields in several canvases with what looks like a standing wave pattern in a shallow trough of water, or a bird’s-eye view of wind-striated sand dunes. His rippling fields of color look as connected to memories of bad TV reception as to the work of other painters. There’s no pretense about the paintings: they just look up-to-speed with the culture around them. Made with a keen, unenraptured eye for color and the physical appeal of paint, these paintings are intense but unexpressionistic. Their surfaces have been avidly worked, yet the paint never gets confectionary.

Arnitz’s tour-de-force is a big painting titled Testimony of a Solid Citizen, 1988, in which small, sapphire-blue balls dot a field beribboned with loam-brown stripes; hazy light seeps through the stripes, as though through the slats of a closed Venetian blind. Shrouded, moody, and lush, the painting is inexplicably fascinating. Even at their most abstract, Arnitz’s new works are unabashedly pictorial, in the light-emanating manner of some of Eric Orr’s work. His abstractions function like images. He likes to paint softly gradated bands around the perimeters of some canvases to make them look as if they’re wearing fat half- or quarter-round frames. One such picture, Communique, 1988, is a maze of frames within frames that seems to conduct outward the warmth and light of the intense red at its center. The starker works here bear a distant resemblance to the “empty” pictures Ralph Humphrey painted in the mid ’60s. Other pieces are closer in spirit to early Stella works in that they enforce a sense of the painter’s basic task as the blanketing of a surface with intelligent labor.

Kenneth Baker