New York

Saul Fletcher

“But what does the painter think about his work—which in itself appears to be unresolved—being framed, enclosed, placed in an interior?,” a journalist wrote in 1920, after visiting Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio. “His studio answers for him. The walls of the room . . . are hung with painted or unpainted canvases, so that each wall is actually a kind of larger-scale painting with rectangular fields.” Saul Fletcher’s photograph, Untitled (Fog and Rain), 2005, which shows a loose pattern of black vertical lines on a roughly painted surface, recalls Mondrian’s 1915 Pier and Ocean, but a comparison between the two artists sheds more light on process than on style.

As Mondrian’s visitor’s observation suggests, the studio is a place where an artist may assert control over context, and Fletcher exploits this potential to the full. Treating one wall of his studio as a changeable platform for improvisation, he uses paint and found objects to create compositions that have been rightly compared to both Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines and Joseph Cornell’s boxes and takes pictures of them, merging photography’s documentary and expressive functions. Fletcher turns an installation of indeterminate (but almost certainly large) scale into something small and intimate—his photographs are never larger than nine-and-a-half by seven-and-a-half inches. But it would be wrong to take these emotionally rich and intriguing images for mere cerebral exercises.

Indeed, despite the hermetic circumstances of their making, Fletcher’s images are open and honest, bearing straightforward subtitles. Eleven of these were on view in his show at Anton Kern Gallery, which also included evidence of his recent expansion into painting and sculpture. In one photograph, Untitled #180 (My Surrender), 2005, a soldier in a pirate hat is submissive yet still dashing, as though he were plotting a fast getaway (he also seems to be a surrogate for the artist). Other works have a vaguely gothic, fantastic air, as in Untitled #177 (Broken Witch), 2005, which shows a grasping, claw-like hand and a lock of black hair (clearly from a wig) that seems to have wiped away some of the paint on the wall beneath it, or Untitled #176 (Horse/Wolf), 2005, in which a horse’s head is ingeniously made out of a folded wool blanket.

After such evocative photographs, the results of Fletcher’s foray into painting feel rather disappointing. His romantic neo-Victorian sensibility—which makes sense in the photographs, where the medium imposes a useful restraint—verges on the trite when rendered on canvas. Images of a dead bunny in a field or a pair of black wings seem kitschy rather than genuinely mysterious. (One exception is Untitled [painting II], 2005, a landscape in an alluring palette of deep burgundy, burnt orange, and dusky rose.) Fletcher’s sculptures are generally more interesting, particularly in their use of religious iconography. Untitled (knives), 2006, a board with table knives shoved into it leaning against the gallery wall, brings to mind St. Sebastian; Untitled (cross with bird’s nest), 2005, is a large cross that incorporates black ribbon, branches, and bird nests to great effect. The latter also conveys an idea of what Fletcher’s wall might look like in the flesh, so to speak, after his umpteenth manipulation of its surface. But as compelling as this work is, it fails to match the private, yearning quality of the photographs. Perhaps confining his multimedia practice to his studio, and revealing it to the public only via photography, paradoxically frees the artist to bring out the abject and the human in his own work.

Claire Barliant