at Ratner Gallery

During the intense turmoil of the 60s, cultural conventions burst as everyone suddenly began to “express” themselves. In the visual arts, rules of good taste were challenged and broken as the lively colors, patterns, and imagery of pop culture captivated the highbrow scene.

Fast-forward to the eve of 1991. The differences are instructional, to say the least. America has gone corporate in a big way, as both art and fashion have adopted neutral colors (black wins hands down) and emotional restraint. As we don our cool, slick clothes to check out some cool, slick art, we may tend to smile smugly about the gaudy backwardness of the 60s styles.

Perhaps that is why New York artist Edgar Franceschi’s acrylic and mixed-media canvases are disturbing. In these large works colors and patterns are juxtaposed in such an eclectic manner that they often seem to border on 60s flower-power kitschiness. But certain recurring motifs express a viewpoint that is extremely critical of recent modernist styles championed by the mainstream art world. The resulting work is so angry that it is difficult to like; but it is so confidently executed that it is hard to dismiss. And it makes us feel guilty about our mainstream coolness.

The show’s first piece, Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It, introduces a couple of elements that appear in most of the remaining 11 works: a wide graphic brush mark and a three-dimensional picture frame. On the right side of the composition a man’s dark silhouette on a white background confronts us. Numerous white brush marks running through the figure make it seem as though parts of him have disappeared into the background. A painted palette and a real palette knife rest against the figure’s chest. Around his head float several geometric forms filled with abstract patterns. To the figure’s left a pair of picture frames enclose more abstract designs.

The question of artistic identity raised here functions on a personal and a political level. Franceschi, who is of Puerto Rican descent, seems to be struggling not only with his own identity as an artist surrounded by a plurality of styles, but also as a person of color trying to survive in a field historically dominated by Western art. The disappearing figure is also an obvious reference to the concept of whitewashing. But Franceschi is not asking for sympathy, as the sharp lines of his forms and his fearless combinations of color and pattern make very clear. Instead, he is giving us a heavy, somewhat unpleasant irony that is distinctly accusatory.

Cultural ire is equally evident in another large piece called Come Ye Sons of Art. With this work the artist seems to have composed an American flag. The upper-left section consists of a tacky blue and silver sky image from which four stars have been cut to reveal bits of the gallery wall behind. The lower-left section is a picture frame that holds an image of two white brush strokes. The remaining two-thirds of the work’s surface is covered with thin, drippy vertical stripes. In the center of this area rest three small, round tin containers. While the containers’ original contents remain a mystery, the image of a steaming cup of coffee on one of the lids suggests agribusiness relations between the U.S. and other countries. The hokiness of the stars and the fact that we can see through them to the wall behind seem to symbolize a nation based at best on appearances and at worst on exploitative fakery. The framed brush strokes bring us back to the world of art, which Franceschi reminds us is also a business. The look of the 60s permeates this piece. The stripes remind me of striped bell-bottoms, and the funky combination of disparate objects and images recalls the irreverent sensibility of Robert Rauschenberg.

The business of art is the subject of another piece called Frida Kahlo’s Bed. The skillful integration of materials and meaning make it the best work in the show. Kahlo’s paintings of the 30s and 40s, often self-portraits of the physical and mental suffering that took place on her bed, have only recently begun to attract the attention they deserve. Franceschi universalizes Kahlo’s suffering to include all marginalized groups. He uses a stretched lavender and beige bed sheet as the work’s background, and on this surface he paints his own pattern: vertical rows of rigidly arranged circles, each of which encloses a pile of his white brush strokes that almost look like currency. There are also small office labels and a text at the bottom of the piece that reads “higher pay better.” Together these elements suggest the personal pain a hierarchy may inflict on those on the bottom rungs.

The successful organization of this piece is lacking in Franceschi’s two largest works. Each is a long horizontal canvas featuring a huge geometric design painted over a background filled with imagery. The large rectilinear design of On Listening to Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is painted in messy expressionistic strokes of blacks and blues. Its form carries repugnant connotations because it resembles a Nazi swastika. This resemblance, coupled with the domineering size and the confrontational, in-your-face presentation, makes the work so heavy-handed that it is almost insulting. If Franceschi intended to cancel out the pleasing effect of the background’s beautifully painted rows of records, he certainly achieved his aim.

In A Memo to Milan Kundera the big disturbing shape takes on a mazelike form. Its mauve, aqua, and black strokes are locked in by a larger maze of repeated letters and numbers similar to those found on sheets of press type. Black-and-white photocopies of an endless maze diagram make up the background, and three wooden hearts have been attached to different areas of the canvas as a final embellishment. The overall effect is of clutter and stagnation. If a portrait of frustration was what the artist intended, then perhaps this piece is too effective, for we leave it feeling frustrated.

Franceschi’s paintings often make us squirm because they denigrate postwar American art in a deliberately distasteful way. When looking at The Tenant of Modernism, we don’t know whether to laugh, sympathize, or protest indignantly. A large, rough mound of white plaster with a paintbrush sticking out of it rests on a canvas surface painted with geometric designs. The mound has a satirical crassness that persuades us to interpret the brown paint splashes beside it as symbolizing shit. As the title indicates, Franceschi’s colorful geometric shapes refer to abstract expressionism and minimalism–the modernist styles that dominated the art scene during the 1950s and ’60s. (Clement Greenberg, an early proponent of the new, contentless art, claimed it was the only “pure” art.) In this piece Franceschi attempts to throw off the influence of recent art history by deriding it. However, Rauschenberg did that with much more economy and elegance when he erased a drawing by famed abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

Most of Franceschi’s works contain abstract design elements and the symbolic white brush strokes, and so we may conclude that a critique of modernism is the primary theme of his work. Yet beneath this lies a commentary on racial and economic issues that is so powerful it often bursts into the forefront. Franceschi is at his best when he focuses directly on the relationship between money, minorities, and the mainstream art world, as he does so intelligently in Frida Kahlo’s Bed. The struggle for parity in the art world and in society at large could use more of this strong, clear voice.