Andrew Guenther

Bucket Rider Gallery

Primitive motifs have seeped back into painting of late as a method of denoting, if not embodying, “pure” subjectivity: Katherine Bernhardt’s Neue Wilde–esque figures and Mark Grotjahn’s cardboard mask constructions are two examples among many. This revival should come as no surprise—the impulse to establish and communicate sovereign selfhood remains fundamental, and the currently fatted marketplace only encourages its indulgence, since the fear of commercial failure still often trumps the desire to avoid played-out tropes.

In the paintings of Andrew Guenther, the primitive reappears in signifiers of opposition and difference, which take the form of masks, coconuts, and juxtaposed complementary colors. Still, the results are oddly calm—unruffled and unruffling. Guenther employs compositional symmetry, a practiced blend of staining and impasto, and an enormous formal variety characterized by a complex layering of color to achieve visually striking results. Yet his obvious desire to inhabit unsettling “forbidden” (or at least alien) thematic territory is trounced almost entirely by this purely material richness. Your Family’s Medical History (all works 2006), for example, is a large canvas depicting a male nude in a dense stand of tropical foliage marked with decorative starbursts. The figure’s face is dark and his simply painted almond-shaped eyes slip from their anatomical location onto the surface of the painting where they multiply and float in front of the figure’s cheek and unkempt hair. A pair of coconut-shell breasts that are attached to the surface of the canvas cast bright green painted shadows on the figure’s spherical orange gut. In purely visual terms, Guenther’s use of the tropical fruit is a strategy as bracing as Chris Ofili’s use of elephant dung, but the work as a whole lacks any substantial emotional heft. The figure elicits no curiosity. We know him too well; he is a washed-up sign that just happens to be smartly painted.

Untitled (Coconut Painting II) does away with the jungle setting in favor of a homogeneous black ground. White vertical washes and drips sketch out the hair of a rapidly drawn female bust while crude horizontal pulls of the brush represent two eyes and a mouth. Here again tawny fibrous coconut shells streaked with pink drips stand in for breasts. The adhering of the coconuts to the canvas requires a precision and craft that is contrary to the brisk brushwork of the work’s painted elements: No oozing glue marks the seam between the perfectly cut shells and the plane of the canvas. Again, Guenther’s confidence with composition, color, and brushwork has the unfortunate effect of distancing his work from the problems and possibilities of primitive rawness with which its imagery flirts.

Only in Let It Shine does Guenther’s dalliance with the primitive yield convincing results. Here, a male figure is seen from behind. As he bends over, his hands pull at his buttocks to expose a glorious anus that radiates a white pulsing light flickering with hints of pink and green. It should be a straightforwardly outrageous image, shocking but little more. Yet its sheer urgency gives it an energy and a power that the coconut-clad characters lack. Here, at last, Guenther moves beyond the straight appropriation of primitive imagery to create an image that actually evokes a primal experience.

Michelle Grabner