Rebecca Wolfram

at Kozuch Gallery, through October 14

Many painters start with an idea and plan their paintings in detail in advance. Everything is decided upon, down to color composition and the scale of each element. For some of these painters, the finished work is disappointing, diminished beside the original concept. But for others, the result is surprisingly superior precisely because the unexpected always occurs in the process.

Rebecca Wolfram takes a completely different approach. For her there must be no initial idea, no planned image, and no previous studies. The process of painting becomes a struggle to resist any ideas and allow unconscious images to emerge. Like many artists who work this way, she is reticent about her work, but galleries often demand statements from their artists for exhibition brochures. In the statement for this Kozuch Gallery exhibition, Wolfram writes simply: “The content of my painting is generated by unconscious material.”

But giving up conscious control in order to free unknown images is not as easy as it might sound. We’re not talking merely about doodling while on the phone–although anyone who engages in compulsive doodling will know that, strangely, the same images keep recurring. For Wolfram, this repetition must be constantly resisted, and this is what makes her task so difficult–maybe impossible. If you’ve been painting this way for many years, as she has, the tendency for perhaps unreconciled ideas to keep reforming out of previously created images must become more and more difficult to resist. The evidence of Wolfram’s constant battle against repetition and easy solutions is revealed to us in the surface of her paintings, which are scratched, scraped, and worked over with more oil paint. And she doesn’t always win this struggle against conscious memory: familiar narrative images are waiting to appear at moments of exhaustion or inattention. The route she’s taken will be punctuated by failures–but beautiful failures, because they don’t fail as paintings but merely in terms of the painter’s intentions.

In Present Perfect, the most recent painting in this exhibition, narrative is victorious in the struggle. Two men, one in underwear and the other in a suit, are shaking hands in front of two cars, one jump-starting the other. Something “has happened” in the active present perfect or, to put it in the passive voice, an agreement “has been reached.” But there is also something sinister going on; the man in underwear shapes his hand like a gun and holds it behind his back. This is a theatrical device, like an actor’s aside to the audience. In Present Perfect Wolfram seems to be allowing an image reference to a 1989 work, We Have Taken Care of Them, which also somehow describes the present-perfect verb tense.

If Present Perfect illustrates its grammatical reference with a story, We Have Taken Care of Them treats the problem diagrammatically, symbolically representing the invisible structure of the present-perfect tense. The image of the handshake remains, but there are no illusionistic surroundings and there is no theatrical plot. The larger of the two hand-shaking figures is unforgettable, dominating the canvas. What is so haunting about this figure? Is it his vast, naked whiteness? Like power itself, he seems so familiar and at the same time unknown. He stands with his left arm raised as if to protect or maybe measure four floating images, while with his right he shakes hands with a dressed figure disappearing out of the picture in the lower right corner. As a symbol of the power relation or the lie that often lurks behind a contractual agreement–or the ambiguities and open-endedness of a grammatical construction–We Have Taken Care of Them works for me in a way that Present Perfect doesn’t. But paradoxically I wouldn’t understand the earlier painting as well if the later one didn’t exist. Repetition aids conscious understanding–which is why cerebral painters tend to repeat themselves. The danger of conscious repetition is that it can lead away from the visual to the theoretical. Few painters take Wolfram’s difficult approach. Her paintings are always sensual and visceral, and she keeps them that way by the hard repression of conscious analysis.

Viewers of Wolfram’s work often see a connection with Francis Bacon. Roberta Kozuch, the gallery owner, says as much in the exhibit brochure. I feel that this is a superficial reading, however, based on the fact that at first glance these artists share a dark vision and similarly distort the human figure. While Wolfram acknowledges, and the work itself sometimes shows, Bacon’s influence, in recent years she has assimilated this influence so thoroughly that the differences in their ways of painting and their concerns are very clear. For instance, Bacon confines the accidents, distortions, and drama in his work to the figure. Everything else in the room, say–the walls, floor, ceiling, light bulbs, beds–is completely flat and static. The figure seems always alone, in a state of complete alienation from its world: a hopeless vision. As John Berger has pointed out, in Bacon’s paintings the worst has already happened, and there is no way out.

But in Wolfram’s work the struggle to let the unconscious image emerge occurs all over the canvas, creating a unity between the figure and its landscape or background. Whatever horror might be occurring, it is happening within a universe. If there is suffering, the humans suffer, the animals suffer, the landscape shudders, and even the furniture trembles. It is an apocalyptic vision–but oddly, because of that we feel hope.

No one looking at a painting like Girls and Entropy (1993) would ever think of Bacon. This is Wolfram completely herself. The image is new, without references or, as far as I can see, influence. Two small girls are kneeling in the foreground playing, singularly absorbed in their game of constructing a small circular wall. Behind them lies a totally devastated landscape, and beneath them, underground, we can see multitudes of rabbits, cats, and opossums in a burrow. The unified colors–brown predominates–and handling of paint create a unity between the empty landscape, the girls, and the animals, drawing the viewer into a believable universe of surreal collapse. This is not quite Eliot’s “Not with a bang, but a whimper” vision, but the portrayal of a seductive entropy in which there is only enough energy to play, not to work, heralding not the end of the world but surely the end of civilization.

To be fair to those who see the Bacon connection, in one painting here Wolfram is quite clearly paying homage to his work, or is perhaps attempting to come to terms with his influence. But the result still points out their differences. In Stones on the Heart (1989), Wolfram borrows some of Bacon’s well-known images–a naked man on a chair, a TV set, and a woman on a bed–and places them in an empty room typical of Bacon, with its curved space. But, painting in a unified manner, she gives everything a Wolfram solidity. She cannot bring herself to splatter the figures, and the room doesn’t have Bacon’s illustrational flatness but seems to throb along with the figures. Whatever drama is being played out between these two people, they do have a relationship to each other and live in a compatible universe. However painful this interaction, it can never be completely devastating. While Bacon’s paintings seem to force an interpretation based in the individual psyche, Wolfram’s vision remains inherently social; it is the world that’s gone wrong, not the figures within it.

“Humor” is not a word that comes to mind in relation to Bacon, but there’s always a sort of dark humor in Wolfram, most evident in her treatment of animals. It seems to emerge from the encounters she sets up between the sentimental and the grotesque, shown here in four Dead Opossum Memorial Plaques (1994). Apart from four large ink drawings on paper, these are the only works not painted in oils on canvas. Instead they’re oil painted on small, irregular pieces of metal and rubber–found, I assume, like dead opossums, on the road. Despite the expectations created by the title, the pieces are quite beautiful. The one worked with ink and pencil on rubber shows us Wolfram’s great facility for drawing. She draws constantly, she says, I assume to help release the images she needs for her paintings.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that it was Cezanne who taught him not to look at painting with “immature eyes,” always searching for a narrative, lyrical content, or a message. Cezanne’s work revealed to him that a painting is something that takes place among colors, and that colors must be left alone completely, without suffering interference, to settle matters among themselves. This may sound like “art for art’s sake,” but it is instructive to note that art with an ideological message is always eventually assimilated by the establishment, whereas formalist works remain open to interpretation, revealing a commitment to the idea of freedom of the imagination vital to all human moves toward freedom.

Although Wolfram’s work does not resemble Cezanne’s, her exhibit reminded me of Rilke’s revelation. I can’t help feeling that Wolfram is one of those painters who never suffered from Rilke’s immature eyes but could always see painting as colors playing together, exposing new images. Prose cannot easily describe a color. It must be left to a poet to make us see a certain blue. The skillful dialogue between blue and yellow in Exile (1992) and the reds in the haunting series of small Alternate Routes (1994) offer a wonderful and secret “message” to all viewers with mature eyes.

It can also be said that, since Cezanne, artists who commit themselves to the struggle to make honest paintings have also had to choose isolation. To hear their own inner voices, painters like this must turn a deaf ear to intellectual analysis of their work and to demands to tailor their subjects to current trends. It is out of this isolation, away from the billboards of late modernism exhorting the viewer “to get the message,” that an artist like Rebecca Wolfram paints her whispered messages, though for a time they may be sent only to herself.