Los Angeles

Richard Artschwager

The fourteen new paintings in Richard Artschwager’s recent exhibition at Gagosian Gallery hardly comprise a series or even suggest a cohesive totality. Rather, a number of overlapping connections held the show together as Artschwager recycled from his archival treasure trove, often redeploying materials and motifs as sly sight gags and perceptual bluffs. In several works, for example, the artist borrows objects from his 1974 “Door Window Table Basket Mirror Rug” series, relocating the drawings’ woven basket into a distorted and slightly creepy dungeonlike interior in Walking Man, and isolating the “old” rug in a perceptual tug-of-war between flatness and perspectival depth in Rug II (both 2004). With the past clearly visible in his rearview mirror, Artschwager has arrived at several pictorial strategies that seem colorful, varied, weird, and wholly new.

Since the mid-1960s, Artschwager has built most of his image-based works—depictions of plain American houses, modern apartment buildings, opulent interiors, and, more recently, uneasy “political” portraits of George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and Timothy McVeigh—on inky photographs clipped from newspapers. Transcribing these images into acrylic paintings on panels of Celotex—a compressed paper pulp used in the manufacture of ceiling tiles—the grisaille pictures reproduce the smudgy, pulpy, slightly out-of-focus character of their sources, and are twice-distanced from the “reality” indexed therein. In recent years, Artschwager has replaced the off-the-shelf panels with custom-made fiber versions; likewise, in this show, he eschews the comfortable familiarity of his previous source material in favor of peculiar imagery with less readily identifiable origins. The fuzzy surface of the fiber becomes a variable that Artschwager repeatedly manipulates in the service of purposeful ambiguity: In the dryly painted (and dryly humorous) Desert Growth, 2005, piles of modular forms on a mesa suggest, all at once, alien succulents, new urban development in the American Southwest, formal abstraction overtaking the landscape, and a still life of geometric vessels on a table. In Abstract and Close-It (both 2004), striated and knotted lines resembling strands of rhubarb cleverly insinuate a microscopic close-up of the support.

Increasingly removed from any relationship to Minimalism or Pop—categories that never quite fit in the first place—Artschwager has quietly positioned himself as René Magritte’s American heir, however unfashionable a move that might sound. Like the recalcitrant Surrealist’s greatest pictorial conundrums, many of Artschwager’s pictures—resized southwestern landscapes; oddly squashed or distended interiors populated by enigmatic, anonymous figures and “furniture” that recalls this artist’s earlier sculptures; coyly representative “abstractions”—refuse resolution or easy interpretation. In fact, Holding, 2004, clearly pays homage to Magritte, and implies infinite regress, via an image of a thin peasant girl holding a picture of herself.

More successful is the two-faced vertical “portrait” painting Janus, 2005, in which a stylized desert plant rendered in creamy yellow, pink, and acid green also reveals itself as a brushy gestural head contained by a thick, cartoonish black outline; the ambiguous gender of the featureless head mirrors the playful disruption of genre expectations engendered by conflating portrait and landscape. Throughout his career, Artschwager has confounded categorical limits and plotted his own trajectory, all the while making the visual comprehension of space—and the everyday objects that occupy it—strangely unfamiliar. Well into the fifth decade of his career, the artist has finally emerged as the eccentric he’s supposed to be. Fittingly, then, these oddball pictures are totally unexpected, yet unmistakably his own.

Michael Ned Holte