New York

Robert Yarber

Lieberman & Saul Gallery

It is common knowledge that photography today has all but replaced the sketch as a preparatory medium for painters. Even abstract painters refer to photographs in order to zero in on chromatic or compositional qualities relevant to his or her painterly concerns—Stephen Mueller, for example, who paints large stained dispersions, takes Polaroids. Among figurative artists, the dependence on everything from slide projections to photographic prints is even more common. Some, such as Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter, manage to make painting itself look like a photochemical process. Others, like Billy Sullivan or Eric Fischl, routinely use photographs as visual notes or ready-made outlines without translating a sense of the physical properties of that medium into paint. Others still, from David Salle to Julia Wachtel, take their cues from Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, incorporating photographic elements directly into their works. Until recently, however, such painters have viewed their photographic sidelines as subsidiary endeavors and have tended to keep their wallet photos under wraps. No longer, it would seem. Over the last several months, as the gold dust of the ’80s continues to settle, we have had occasion to witness the emergence of the painter’s photograph as a commodity in its own right.

A little more than a year after Eric Fischl’s photo exhibition, and coincident with Salle’s, Robert Yarber went public with his working notes. Not surprisingly, his show of 12 Cibachromes taken between 1986 and 1991 reiterated a number of traits associated with his signature, surrealistically lurid paintings—his motel vignettes, as well as those more recent, jaundiced juries of the roulette wheel and blackjack table. Like the paintings, all of the photographs save one are nocturnes. In Attraction, 1989, for instance, a photo taken in an amusement park in Maine, a blurred image of moving carousel horses is barely visible through a gaseous, beery sort of foreground. Galvez, 1990, shot in Galveston, Texas, is more specifically a color study. It’s suffused with a great, sulfuric yellowish-green that could ideally be transferred to the casino paintings. In other night scenes, you may recognize some characteristically vertiginous angles, as well as that standardized, yet fantastic, day-for-night esthetic—so compelling for Yarber—that can make resort accommodations in Acapulco and roadside lodgings near the Canadian border look very nearly the same. In fact, the only picture in this exhibition that didn’t appear to relate directly to Yarber’s known works on canvas was one he took by day about a year ago in Rome. Bleached and sunstruck, it is all subtle grain and blandly loquacious beiges. Will sunlight now filter its way into the paintings?

These photographs are essentially background sketches and lighting studies—simply not that interesting as independent works. Without Yarber’s figures and melodramatic situations, this viewer was a little bored.

Lisa Liebmann