New York

Robert Rahway Zakanitch

Robert Rahway Zakanitch’s “Big Bungalow Suite,” 1990–93, consists of five paintings on unstretched canvas—only the first four of them exhibited here—each of which is 11 feet high and 30 feet long. Executed in an exuberant painterly style, complete with drips and splatters, they nevertheless convey a sense of restraint and formality, one enforced, perhaps, by the artist’s method of laying down his repetitive patterns of imagery with stencils before working them up with the brush. Flowery, wallpaperlike motifs become equivalent to allover fields into which a number of smaller, oddly shaped images are set: a pair of hands shaking, a landscape, a dog. . . . What may not be immediately obvious is that these represent images painted on vases. (Uptown, Zakanitch showed smaller paintings of painted vases like the ones in “Big Bungalow Suite”—almost portrait studies of pottery.)

The relation between scale and content in this series of paintings is unusual. The mural scale here would make more immediate sense for work with obvious “public” subject matter, whether narrative or allegorical, or for the kind of abstraction that aims at universality. But these paintings are resolutely intimate: the wallpaper, vases, and other decorative elements of the domestic interior that form the basis of their vocabulary are the kind of things that, minus a certain healthy American vulgarity, might have delighted Vuillard. The sense of psychological enclosure another artist might have achieved from diminutive scale is achieved here, paradoxically, through an unusually large one. It is as though one were wandering, somewhat lost and dazed, among these blossoming floral patterns.

The looseness and fluidity of paint handling here corresponds not to a sense of virtuosic spontaneity or heroic effort, but, rather, to the fluidity of painting itself. Zakanitch sees painting as a medium that, because it is inherently imprecise, allows many different levels of reality to seep into an image. It’s not just that an inset landscape can be a picture of a place, a picture of a flat, two-dimensional painting, or a picture of a painting executed in the round on a three-dimensional pot, but that the surrounding floral patterns can begin to look like other kinds of imagery altogether: a mountainous terrain in the upper portion of number III, for instance, or brightly colored umbrellas in number II. “Painting” then would designate above all a technique of suggestion and reverie.

This hypnotic profusion sustained by a method that partakes of the mechanical and geometrical recalls certain writings of Raymond Roussel, here into a cozy middle-class key. Roussel’s early book, La Vue, 1904, consisted of three long poems of almost demented descriptive profusion, in which the narrator—his eye “close enough for a lash to touch”—loses himself in impossibly detailed views of an image set in a penholder, an engraving on a hotel letterhead, and the label on a bottle of mineral water. In these paintings, as in Roussel’s poems, the simplest representations overwhelm reality, an obsessive gaze transforming them into individual worlds, even though the incredible proliferation of surfaces within surfaces, images within images in Zakanitch’s work only serves, finally, to display the melancholy inaccessibility of all surfaces, all images.

Barry Schwabsky