Philadelphia

Keith Ragone

While Keith Ragone may position himself outside the ongoing conversation about whether painting is alive or dead, witnessing the obvious attachment of the artist to his practice, one wonders whether these nostalgic images are enlightened gestures or stunning anachronisms. Ragone’s paintings are not inventions that speak of this moment, nor do they reinvent, in a customary way, a moment from the past; there is no irony, no real distance in his investigation. Though traces of the explorations of artists such as Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffmann, and Arshile Gorky linger in Ragone’s works, he seems to suggest that if we are overwhelmed by the presence of so many painting giants, it is our problem, not his.

His practice involves a dense, formal vocabulary that reflects a view of nature where change is a constant and the evolution of form becomes the prevailing conceit. A single color is often explored for the nuances of its expressive range; value contrasts become dramatic characters on the picture plane. Transparency speaks of revealing; opacity refuses this possibility. Throughout, the viewer, like the painter himself, struggles with realizing specific forms. Within washed fields and thicker clouds of paint, there is an abundance of painted marks that sometimes become a line; occasionally, the lines suggest rectangles. But, most often, there are circles or spheres—the forms with which Ragone seems to be most comfortable. They look like holes, the ringed impressions a cup, or stencil might leave, or thick layers that one could catch the edge of and peel away. Sometimes Ragone’s circles have tails or draw into themselves as a spiral would. The diversity of their presentation becomes symbolic of Ragone’s predilection for process over definitive form. The exceptions are few. In Red River, 1994, a spherical shape stretches out to suggest a reluctant heart. More characteristically, another very red painting, Silhouetted Against the Mist, 1994, a Gorky lookalike, takes an extra-slippery step away from the imaged world where Gorky’s paintings began.

In the most compelling paintings, there is an underlying inclination, as well as an accompanying hesitation, to succumb to the pressure of form. Here the extensive repertoire of painting maneuvers seems almost like a ploy to distract the artist from the inevitable naming of the world. Perhaps, for Ragone, the monster in the painting of the same name is the juglike object rather than the skeletal marks that hover above it.

Eileen Neff