Raymond Saunders

Galerie Resche

In the paintings of Raymond Saunders, black is a world. Not the mystico-cerebral universe of Ad Reinhardt, or the folk-historic reality of Jacob Lawrence, but an encyclopedic world of visual encounters: with still fifes and greeting cards, with children’s drawings and book illustrations, with graffiti and Japanese calligraphy, with memory and chance. It is the world of an African-American wanderer who claims (with reason) that he can make the color “sing.”

For Saunders, the vast black surfaces on which he works—usually painted canvases but also blackboard slabs—function not as neutral backgrounds but as active components in the play between drawing, painting, collage, and assemblage. Though the immediate effect is akin to the random accumulation on city walls, with its layers of imagery, there is, in fact, nothing very random about Saunders’ work: far from recreating disorder he imposes an order of his own. For all of the seeming spontaneity in his choice of materials, the colors are basically keyed to high-power contrasts of black and white, red and yellow, and an occasional blue and green. Similarly, he manages to contain the welter of collaged elements in compact compositions that neatly, if inconspicuously, recapitulate the frame.

For Saunders, black is at once a color, a shape, an outline, a surface, a space, a support, and an anchor. Of the white surface, he says, “I have to fill [it] in. On the black surface I put it down and it sort of fills itself.” As if to prove the point, almost every painting includes an elegant chalk still life innocuously perched over empty/full black space in a way that would be impossible on a white ground.

At the same time, black is also a badge of identity. (“They say black’s not a color? I say Hey! I say, What about me?”) Sometimes the references are explicit, as in Moi et l’ailleurs (Me and elsewhere, 1990), where a scrapbooklike assortment of images from “elsewhere”—a couple of Japanese block prints, an ad for saki, and a mystery page of hand-written diagrams and text in Japanese; a Viking comic; a timecard in English and Chinese; and various visions of Anglo-Saxonia from comic strips and book illustrations—are juxtaposed with the chalk-outlined profile of a man (who is, by virtue of the background, black) eyeing a white-robed Klansman, a dancing Jim Crow, and the specter of burning crosses.

Most of the time, though, Saunders’ black is less a foil for social criticism than a magnet for experiences lived and reflected upon. If there is an immediacy in the big blobs of paint and spirals of chalk that zap across a vacant space, there is infinite patience in the piecing together of so many fragments of art and life. There are also large doses of wit and irony in the tiniest details, such as the drawing of a bird that just happens to be placed above the name of Charlie (“Bird”) Parker in Charles Parker and Early Things, 1990. The result is a world of many registers, where art, culture, color, and interpretation, all exist in the plural. With such large chunks of Saunder’s life, and our times, embedded in these kaleidoscopic canvases, it is hard to walk away fast.

Miriam Rosen