New York

Marc Handelman

In “Warm White Blizzard,” his first New York solo show, Marc Handelman issued a direct challenge to Thomas Kinkade for the official title “Painter of Light.” According to his website, Kinkade is “America’s most collected living artist,” sold in malls all over the country and present in one out of every twenty American homes—which is to say that his works represent, for many Americans, an idea of how the perfect landscape painting should look. For Handleman, Kinkade is the bastard grandchild of nineteenth- century American landscape painters like Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Asher B. Durand.

But Handelman’s project isn’t just a kitsch recovery effort; it’s part of his broader reexamination of historical precursors—particularly the Hudson River School and its later incarnation, the Luminists—that was triggered in part by the execrable environmental and foreign policies of the second Bush administration. Rather than giving us a highlight reel of the Hudson River School à la Alexis Rockman, Handelman fixates on his chosen genre’s essence: light, an unavoidable motif in patriotic songs including the national anthem and “God Bless America.” He wants to foreground Luminism (in Bush’s words from the third presidential debate, “the sunrise side, not the sunset side” of the mountain) as an expression of manifest destiny but also aims (in most cases successfully) to stake his own claim to the American landscape painting. At times, Handelman’s paintings verge on accomplished pastiche, but his confident hand and willingness to experiment with scale keep things interesting.

Here, a sequence of large canvases provided a compelling equation between light and violence. In Jubilee (all works 2004), an enormous marijuana bud that might have been painted by Martin Johnson Heade is bathed in an artificial glare, which irradiates its otherwise sophomoric subject with the smoldering yellow orange of the illuminated cave in Cole’s Expulsion. Moon and Firelight, 1828. Arching toward the light source, this megabud begins to resemble the monstrous plant in Little Shop of Horrors, warning of the dangers of a cultivated landscape (the Luminists, of course, portrayed America as virgin territory.)

In Illumination Round (II), light becomes a weapon. Inspired by a type of military explosive that uses magnesium to illuminate the night sky and thereby assist in locating the enemy, it depicts a navy orb bursting with greenish-brown muck against a chalky sky. Like a fireworks display in negative, it suggests an emission from one of the “military sex machines” in Handelman’s previous series of paintings—a dirty bomb that neatly conflates divine mandate and American military technology.

Hypothetical, Handelman’s strongest piece to date, is Kinkade’s famous “gate to heaven” motif writ—at almost ten feet wide—comically large. The lawn is dotted with poppies and dappled with chartreuse highlights, but the requisite church or cottage has been obliterated by a blinding white sky. Handelman has feathered the edges of the grass and trees so that they dissolve into an opaque cloud, portending an ambiguous catastrophe: an apocalyptic duststorm perhaps, or a nuclear explosion. While its varied facture comes off as a little too calculated—for every Kinkadian shortcut, there’s a passage of genuine elegance—Hypothetical wields light like a blunt instrument.

In a series of smaller canvases, Handelman tones down his light fantastic in favor of a more introspective luminosity. In the The Architect’s Dream, the title of which refers to a famous painting by Cole, the image of Daniel Libeskind’s proposed Freedom Tower appears as a white floral topiary reflected on the streaked surface of a midnight-blue pool. The image inevitably calls to mind the entries for the World Trade Center memorial competition—most of them New Age permutations of gardens, candles, and fountains, all hopelessly inadequate as expressions of grief. The Freedom Tower itself is a subject the original Painter of Light has yet to tackle, (though he’s already created a post-9/11 print called The Light of Freedom) but he can’t be far behind. As Handelman has shown us, et in Kinkadia ego.

Karen Rosenberg