at Aron Packer Gallery, through June 28
Moreover the Same: Paintings by Walter Andersons
at Ten in One Gallery, through June 28
By Fred Camper
Words painted over images are nothing new: Renaissance painters sometimes named their subjects or provided a bit of commentary in this way. But artists in this century have taken a more playful approach, using words not to describe the image but to name something that isn't there, creating paradox. Rose Divita gives her ten small untitled paintings at Aron Packer one-word labels, printed on metal plates on frames she considers part of the work, but the function of the label varies from one work to the next. Undercutting expectations, she sometimes seems to name what we see, sometimes names the emotional tone of the image, and sometimes sets up the paradoxes we've come to expect in recent art. Yet the works' style recalls an earlier, more literal time--the beginning of oil painting in 15th-century northern Europe. All are about three-and-a-half by four inches in oil on board, rendered in precise, vibrant colors that give her subjects a hyperreal intensity--a kind of premodern primacy, almost as if they were really there.
Divita, 44--a Chicagoan who earlier created narrative sequences in prints and now sometimes works as a commercial illustrator--used board, she told me, because "I didn't want the canvas texture to be part of it....I didn't want someone to look at them and think they're about paint, but more, 'I can imagine touching that.' An eye of one of the animals should feel like an eye, not a symbol of an eye." As a kid Divita liked Ivan Albright, but later found him "too literal"; later influences include Wayne Thiebaud, for the tactility of his food paintings, Francis Bacon, and Renaissance masters such as DŸrer. Most recently she's been interested in small portraits--paintings on porcelain, daguerreotypes in lockets.
The shifting function of Divita's one-word labels is only one of several contradictions in her work. Her intense realism often collides rather oddly with the labels. While the word "Alas" for an image of a lonely prairie road suggests the landscape is a metaphor for emotion, the field's physicality seems to argue against reducing it to a symbol. In the same way, a dog labeled with the word "Amuse" can't be seen only as an amusement. The image of a baby in "Alone" is full of small, subtle contradictions: lying on his back in some grass, his mouth open, the baby seems alone partly because his eyes are closed. But his clothing is covered with bright letters of the alphabet: too young to read, he's yet clad in the language he'll soon be taught. He's alone but not alone, his clothes a marker of the society that will civilize him. There's an odd, very gentle humor here too: the bright letters have a cuteness Divita usually abjures, and their arbitrary arrangement depicts language not as a conveyor of information but as a maze of incomprehensible symbols. Indeed, Divita's use of only words beginning with "A" suggests that language is as much a game as a serious instrument.
The most immediate disparity in many of Divita's paintings comes from the composition. In "Afraid" we see a figure from the rear (Divita herself) facing the starlit sky; her arms are spread, as if she were confronting the universe, but her wrists are flexed and her palms face outward, a position that makes her seem swept back by the sky. The woman's face in "Affect," lips pursed, is ambiguous: she seems to be concealing contradictory emotions. The horse labeled "Appear" is painted in profile, the lines of its head echoed by streaky clouds behind, but its eye looks backward--a "conflicted" horse, it casts the viewer's eye in two directions at once.
The multiple disparities in Divita's work create a kind of poetry out of a vividly real but centrifugal world. The crisis in her work does not revolve around representation--her wolves are there in "Allure" and "Attack." The question is why her wolves are facing in different directions to howl, and what it means in each case. In "Allure" they're facing the sky; in "Attack" a single wolf faces sideways, ready to leap at a target we do not see. The unfixed relationships between image and label, between parts of a single composition, and between paintings seem meant to undercut expectations, to unsettle us. The unbalanced figure in "Afraid" might serve as a metaphor for the uncertainty Divita sets up, placing the viewer on perpetually shifting ground.
Walter Andersons also uses language paradoxically and brings diverse elements together to create a kind of poetry. All but one of the 12 new works at Ten in One are paintings of texts or of reproduced art. In All for Presentation, it's obvious that the image is reflexive: the four lines of text Andersons painted from a computer printout-- "re-presentation/over-presentation/in-presentation/under-presentation"--refer to the ways an artwork can present itself. Yet Andersons's work is hardly as academic, as narrowly intellectual, as it might sound.
Like Divita, Andersons paints with such precision that it gives his work a level of conviction that plays off his modernist use of language. The fact that Andersons paints printed words with such care at first startles the viewer: he's placed himself, and his hand, squarely in the work in a way most text-based artists do not, suggesting a personal investment in each tiny turn of a font. Little smudges just outside many of the printed letters imply that he's trying to duplicate the smudges left by some typewriters; actually, he says, they're mistakes he's decided to keep--other smudges he whites out. In any case these unpredictable marks personalize the printing, removing it from the supposed perfection of computer text. The words may question the art viewing experience, but the way they're painted suggests the conviction of a Flemish master. With each letter and each smudge, Andersons makes printing potentially as expressive as a human face. In Picture he paints ballpoint-pen words similarly, producing areas where the ball might have skipped.
While Andersons never takes irony to the self-mocking extreme of a typical postmodernist, he's not above smiling a bit at his work. In Monographs the image area is filled with a bookcase itself filled with art books; while two shelves are fully visible, a third is cut off near its top. These methodically alphabetized books about 20th-century artists are intimidating: the history of modern art fills our vision, presenting us with a wall of faits accomplis literally without room for additions. A young artist often copies the masters, often from a copy of the original--but all that's left to do here is to copy closed books about those artists.
One's immediate intellectual interpretation of a work, however, is often undercut by another, subtler, usually painterly element. Andersons painted Monographs from a photograph, whose border he also painted, making it cream rather than pure white. Again, Andersons's precision suggests a real love for the way a photograph looks--and for the way it ages.
A poem Andersons wrote for a 1991 exhibit celebrates simplicity, both in its style (influenced by William Carlos Williams, he says) and in its statements: "begin simply," "painting literally." Like Divita a School of the Art Institute graduate, Andersons, 32, acknowledges as influences Rauschenberg, Duchamp, and especially Jasper Johns. Born to Latvian parents and speaking Latvian and English at home, Andersons was interested in art early. A key moment came in high school, when he discovered cubism--he mentions Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon--through reproductions in books.
Painting from reproductions--from photographs and photocopies and computer printouts--with the care and vibrancy that Andersons shows restores the "aura" of the original masterpieces, which according to a famous essay of Walter Benjamin's they're supposed to lose in the age of mechanical reproduction. Yet Andersons celebrates not the original genius of the masters but the look of fonts, of smeared or grainy photocopies, of yellowed paper. Like many other recent artists, he abjures the dictatorial role of form giver for a more modest, more equal relationship with the viewer. His paintings are not records of visions he alone can see but oddly emotional portrayals of the slight off-whites of different papers, which anyone can see.
Yet the show's strongest works are enigmatic, allusive, wedding Andersons's skill and modesty with an eye for paradoxical collage combinations. Three of the four panels that make up Key of Dreams (the title comes from a four-image Magritte painting Andersons copies in another work in this show) contain no words, but together the panels function a bit like the words of a poem. These black-and-white images are arranged to lead the eye clockwise: a horse's head at the upper left faces a clock at the upper right, two hands of which point down to some suitcases (an image from a severely cropped Gary Winogrand photograph) that face a Cezanne still life on the left, whose pitcher seems to lead to the horse above. The clock face makes a joke about this arrangement: part of one of those store signs that read "will be back," it has multiple hands pointing to multiple times, an image Andersons copied from a photo on an album cover. Its impossible confusion of times subtly suggests that Andersons's clockwise arrangement is arbitrary--that there is no "correct" direction. Like Divita, Andersons suggests a fragmented story--the clock says it's time to leave, to pack your bags to go see a Cezanne--but it remains incomplete despite Andersons's customary vivid painting.
Much of the large Painting Composed of Photocopies 96 (60) A.D., almost four by five feet, is white; within the space are paintings of reproductions. The white functions not just as a backdrop for Andersons's collage--it feels alive, filling a space, creating a tension between it and the separate images. Among them are a Picasso self-portrait, an earlier Andersons collagelike painting, a Klee, a DŸrer, a fragment of a "No Smoking" sign painted upside down to read "son" (a play on his name, Andersons says), and pages from a book on Picasso and a Barnett Newman catalog. When the paintings have printed titles, Andersons faithfully reproduces them: he has to paint catalog numbers and "Untitled" several times in the copy of the Newman catalog. The Picasso book, opened to a later painting, is from a photocopy that includes a fragment of text on the facing page.
Each reproduction is painted with care and conviction; arranged together, these heterogeneous works form a kind of symphony of doubt, inevitably raising aesthetic questions. How can both DŸrer's and Picasso's styles be "true"? What relationship do these differently yellowed reproductions have to each other and to the originals? The dynamic white, the space of no images, seems almost a visualization of the gaps and contradictions Andersons's pseudo combine creates. Depicting copies of copies and the uncertainty created by competing artistic realities, Andersons yet paints each detail with so much nostalgic affection that he imbues these works with a loving poetry, a lyricism of the visible.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paintings by Rose Divita photo by Aron Packer/ "Key of Dreams" by Walter Andersons.