New York

Randolfo Rocha

It’s been five years since Randolfo Rocha’s last one-person show, and those who remember his overtly representational, politically topical paintings of the ’80s might imagine this to be the work of a completely different artist. Gone are the proliferating, disjunctive imagery, the references to Latin American political repression (Rocha was born and educated in Brazil), the clashing colors, the esthetic of excess. Instead, here we encounter rigorously flat, hard-edged, rectilinear, but irregular geometries in severest black and white. These crisp, physically assertive paintings have nothing sensational, nothing seductive about them, and they offer very little ready access. In the tradition of what Joseph Masheck once dubbed “hard-core painting,” even the fact that they are painted on rigid wooden supports rather than canvas underlines the literal, objectlike nature of the work.

But just what is “literal?” A harder look, or perhaps just a glance at the gallery’s press release, reveals that these are not simply concrete, nonrepresentational juxtapositions of black and white after all. Rather, the black and white is that of written language, and if there is anything literal about these paintings it is that they are paintings of letters, of words—though these are presented sideways. (Some other works in the same series, reproduced in the catalogue but not exhibited, appear to be “pure” abstractions, while in the work that spells “LIFE,” the word is shown right-side-up, making it more immediately recognizable.) While the paintings are all titled simply Black & White (all 1993) their blocky sans-serif letter forms convey such simple but emotionally loaded words as LUST, HATE, LIE, HEAT, HOPE, AGE, and SHOT: words that seem elemental, somehow obvious in meaning, yet ones that easily lend themselves to rhetorical inflation or evasion, and have thus become strangely contingent. Of course the words BLACK and WHITE, too, are in that charged category.

What quickly becomes apparent as one recognizes the presence of these words in the paintings is that, for the eye, there is no possible integration of these two levels of reception—viewing and reading, pictorial and linguistic. Like the optical illusion in which one can see the duck and the rabbit alternately, but never simultaneously, here one can see the painting as flat—the black and the white occupying the same plane—and as formalistically repelling the imposition of meaning; or one can read the word as such, seeing the painting’s visual form as the solution to a graphic design problem, with black and white alternately serving as the ground—but one can never see both at once. The result is not so much an optical puzzle as a conceptual one, not a dichotomy within perception but about it.

Barry Schwabsky