New York

Archie Rand

Paolo Baldacci Gallery

Archie Rand has always emphasized the fact that his education included both Color Field and realist painting, and that his friendship with Philip Guston taught him something about how the two might be mingled without being synthesized. At the same time, Rand’s vocabulary encompasses both the raucously disruptive nonsense of cartoons and mural painting’s rhetoric of high-minded collective address. In that sense he has less in common with many of the painters who emerged, as he did, in the ’70s than with those of the ’30s—he may be less like alumni of CalArts than those of the WPA, even if his work’s peculiarly corrosive irony, tinged with hysteria, has always seemed markedly contemporary.

While Rand’s last two exhibitions in New York—small paintings in 1995 and drawings in 1996—underscored the manic, cartoony side of his sensibility, this show of four very large paintings (three of them more than twenty feet long) emphasized the (at first sight) more elevated vernacular of his muralism. All four operate by means of the tension between an overall tonal and compositional uniformity and the sequential disjunctiveness of an underlying grid. In Gate and Mountain (all works 1996), this grid is expressed through the abutment of small canvases; in Wheel and Orb, through the linear division of a single surface. The grids are filled with separate images, like comic strips, but with no overall narrative or other discernible continuity among them. With their jumpily tumultuous graphic style, even those images free of slapstick violence or childish cruelty somehow evoke a breakdown of all pretense to reason or dignity. Occasionally, the sources of the images are obvious: Orb includes a send-up of Henri Matisse’s La Danse, while I spotted Star Trek’s Mr. Spock in Wheel. But despite the generalized air of low-brow shtick and parodic familiarity, legible references are for the most part rare. In Gate, exceptionally, the contents of the grid are abstract or decorative motifs rather than representational scenes, and their rhythm accordingly more composed.

In all four paintings, but especially in Wheel and Mountain, the gridded images turn out to function like bricks in a wall, quanta of opacity barring visual or imaginative access to any referent beyond the surface. What opens up these walls of imagery is the next layer of paint superimposed on them, a sort of gluey film of translucent gold or green-gold acrylic that has been highly textured, sometimes with repetitive patterns, lightly veiling the images and muffling their color contrasts. As a result, the paintings’ cacophonous disjunctions are swept up into a variable yet unifying atmosphere. On top of this, Rand has added to each painting a few large, spare linear motifs, often drawn in paint that looks as if it’s been squeezed from the tube like toothpaste. These unmixed, often bright colors leap off the canvas, giving even greater depth to the shimmering atmosphere that envelops the images.

These canvases might almost be parodies of Clement Greenberg’s remark that the paintings in Jackson Pollock’s first exhibition “zigzag[ged] between the intensity of the easel picture and the blandness of the mural.” But while their warm glow suffuses them with a decorous, decorative unity, the underlying imagery never ceases to proclaim the persistence of madness, stupidity, and error as an underlying counterpoint.

Barry Schwabsky