New York

Marc Handelman

Revisiting the aesthetics of American “propaganda painting” since, say, the Hudson River School, it’s striking how little has changed in 150 years. From Thomas Cole and fellow painters of nature, who celebrated America’s virtues via rugged, heroic landscapes bedecked with war-torn American flags, has evolved the synthetic and machine-generated luminescence of the current age—LED screens and TV graphics. Dazzling light plus sparkling vista evidently sells, irrespective of whether it’s an ideology or a product that’s on the block. It’s this disparate lineage of sources reliant on the glitzy treatment of light and a punchy graphic immediacy that is Marc Handelman’s meat and potatoes.

Handelman’s canvases behave like billboards: They’re large, flashy, and, for a few seconds at least, arresting. His is the type of painting likely to make intuitive, sensual “painters’ painters” turn in their graves. His imagery appears derived from photographs; his color has the synthetic pop of television. Handelman paints dense linear patterns and panoramic landscapes that privilege spectacular light sources—a grayish-purple sunrise, the midday sun viewed dead-on, a burning sunset that suspiciously resembles the Stars and Stripes—betraying his debt to Bridget Riley, as well as to the Luminists and Jeff Koons.

A Meteorological Vision (After Frederic Church) (3), 2006, is based on a Church painting, although Handelman’s version makes its inspiration appear subdued. Handelman’s incendiary landscape seems to have been visited by a patriotic skywriter who has left behind a glorious red-and-white trail. The majority of Handelman’s paintings, however, favor artificial light. Monument in Eighty-eight Searchlights, 2006, shows beams of blue electric light extending from two small, blinding sources on either side of the canvas. The viewer becomes a proverbial deer in headlights.

In 1937, 2006, a dark-to-light progression of vertical blue stripes arranged at a slight angle marches across the canvas like a bar code stamped into the sky. A similarly claustrophobic motif of vertical bars figures prominently in TRUSTED, INDEPENDENT, POWERFUL, 2006, a massive painting in pink and blue suggestive of a Madison Avenue window display, tricked out with generic five-pointed stars, diagonals of sizzling laser light, and a gleaming, hulking hexagon that could be a freshly minted logo still unbranded by text. Handelman has co-opted a corporate aesthetic strategy by using light and pattern to convey authority, clarity of vision, and purity of purpose.

While it would be entirely reasonable to suspect that Handelman’s source for TRUSTED, INDEPENDENT, POWERFUL was a Fox News ad, the sources for Monument in Eighty-eight Searchlights and 1937 are even more transparent. The former seems to derive from an installation photo of Tribute in Light, the public project in which powerful beams of light were projected skyward from Ground Zero. The latter is akin to images of the Nazi Party’s “Lichtdom” (Cathedral of Light), a dramatic structure that aimed some 120 searchlights at the heavens during nighttime rallies. Handelman, however, disentangles the images from their sources just enough that they become uniformly totalitarian abstractions, technocratic and cold. The viewer, momentarily seduced, quickly experiences something more like resignation when confronted with an aesthetic so overdetermined as to be banal, but this, one suspects, is Handelman’s intent.

Nick Stillman