New York

Joseph Raffael

If the future of art is beauty (beauty, as was thought in antiquity, being a form of spirit), then Joseph Raffael’s ravishing landscapes, by signaling a spiritual relationship to nature, point the way beyond the “death of painting.” In image after image, Raffael shows us that we must struggle to preserve our environment from our destructive impulses. He often depicts fragments of the blessed landscape where he lives (the Mediterranean coast of southern France) as if they were the last barrier between us and the void that lurks at the edges of these images.

In Raffael’s paintings nature is at its most lush and alive, recorded with immediacy and esthetic subtlety. These works reflect his reverential yet passionate view of familiar things—flowers, a duck swimming in a pond—the things to which we never attend in sufficient detail, never study in all their innocent complexity. Raffael does, beginning with great numbers of photographs, which he uses as a kind of preliminary sketch to capture the moment of recognition. But the color of the photographs fades before that of the paintings, which is more finely tuned. Also, while in the photographs, the details cohere—naively integrate—in Raffael’s paintings they spread out into a strange, sublime, labyrinthine intricacy. One’s eye wends its way through them, finding a common thread in the emotional consistency and intensity with which they are rendered. Raffael’s images are not simply representations, but marvelously calibrated, evocative abstractions, weaving color and line into an intimate matrix that is saturated with insistent presence. Here we have gone far beyond both the irony and cunning of so-called conceptual abstraction and the naïveté of conventional realism. Raffael is not simply scoring points with his manipulation of perceptual conventions, he is letting us know there is as much mystery in the seeing as in the seen.

Several works, for example, depict a pond, a similarity that only serves to underscore the qualitative differences in light between the southern and northern landscapes in which it is set. Renewal and After Transition: Awakening take the pond in the garden of his home as their subject, while Galactic Waters I, II, and III (all works 1995) show a similar pond in The Hague. In the southern pictures the light is refulgent—a mix of radiance and heat—whereas in the northern pictures, where light and dark compete for sharpness, it is starker. In the former, flowers, beings of light, float on water that is only slightly denser than they are, while in the latter a duck, rimmed and dappled by sun light, casts a shadow in the water that is much darker—and denser—than it. Raffael’s touch is at once delicate and firm, as though he were holding a frail bird in his hands. He neither dominates nor sentimentalizes nature, but rather contemplates it in all its concreteness and particularity. His nature is at once temporal and timeless, which is to say that he gives nature a reality and life we only fleetingly perceive, even in our imagination.

Donald Kuspit