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June 4 - August 31, 2004 at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood

by Mario Cutajar

Keep Me in Your Heart for
Awhile," 2003-04, oil on
canvas, 72 1/4 x 56

“Prospect and South State Streets,”
2003, oil on canvas, 36 x 44”.

"Entering Darkness: Nurse at
Dachau", 2001, oil on canvas com-
prised of six panels, 130 x 387".

“In the Drawing Studio, Carla Posing",
2003, charcoal on paper, 32 3/4 x 34”.

“The Penfield Gate", 2001-04,
oil on canvas, 49 1/2 x 79 1/2”.
Jerome Witkin does two kinds of paintings. He does big paintings about big subjects like the Holocaust and 9/11. These are occasions for the artist to deploy the full powers of his imagination, pull out all the painterly stops, and dazzle his audience with his considerable powers as a scenarist. The other body of work consists of modestly sized portraits and, lately, landscapes focusing on the decaying architecture of Syracuse, New York, where Witkin is professor of painting at the University of Syracuse. These latter were what drew me to the current show.

The historical paintings are represented by a multi-paneled work called Entering Darkness: Dorothy Wahlstrom, Nurse at Dachau, a grandiloquent depiction of an American nurse literally shedding light (by means of an electric torch) on the horrors of Dachau after its liberation. The most memorable elements are two caricatures of Hitler. In one he is a green medusa-like presence whose head extends a tentacle of a hand toward the crisply attired nurse (the whiteness of her uniform set off against the filth that threatens to engulf her). In another panel Hitler is a grinning, viridian cadaver with an eviscerated chest cavity that reveals an abyssal emptiness into which one's gaze is drawn by the points of two carving knives. The blades form the sides of an arrow.

Donald Kuspit has called Witkin's Holocaust paintings "dreams in the grand visionary manner of the Old Masters," and has pointed out the hallucinatory quality that results from the collusion of factual horror and hedonistic facture. To my less reverential eyes, however, Entering Darkness seems more like an extravagant exercise in baroque horror, or, as my wife observed, a giant storyboard for a gruesome episode of X-files with Scully as the torch-bearing nurse. Still another way of looking at this work is as the secular equivalent of medieval depictions of martyrdom, which for the pious illustrate both the demonic forces at loose in the world and the heroism of those who resist them.

Be that as it may, it is Witkin's landscapes and some of his portraits that I found the most rewarding here. Anyone familiar with the paintings of the Ash Can School from the 1920s will find a distant echo of that style in these deftly and lovingly painted scenes of slow urban disintegration and the peculiarly decentered, elusive spaces siphoning into the vacuum of endless streets.

It is a Tom Waits-land of rundown factories, brick tenements, and scruffy businesses. In Witkin's vision, Syracuse is depopulated, almost a ghost town. The only evidence of human occupation are the late-model cars parked on the streets. The atmosphere is at once lucid and melancholy. The light and the color harmonies it reveals are distinctly Eastern: orange brick against blue sky, steel-gray asphalt invaded by the vigorous greenery of encroaching weeds, shapes and edges hardened by the cold clarity of rain-washed light. Earth tones and grays predominate, yet Witkin's palette remains clean, precise and capable of inducing the synesthestetic sensation of breathing in the subtle scents of creosoted timber, rain and dormant machinery. He achieves this through a scalpeled exactness of line and masterful color juxtapositions that simultaneously capture depth and light.

Because it is used in such a controlled way, the essential role played by color in these urban scenes may not always be obvious, but it is key nonetheless. In the largest and most impressive of these paintings, The Penfield Gate, the variegated lemon-yellow post near the left edge anchors the whole composition almost as if the entire painting of a weathered brick factory and the broad expanse of asphalt that runs alongside it were conceived to show off the startling beauty of so humble an object. In Parking Lot Off South State Street, the incoming light causes the side of a brick house to radiate a golden glow, which in turn transforms two puddles on the ground into gorgeous abstractions. The bluish distance glimpsed between the structures is occupied by an expended industrial landscape.

Time and time again in these pictures the eye is drawn in multiple directions at once. It is a device that neatly conveys the traversability of the urban landscape. Buildings and things are always in view, while we are on our way somewhere else. Unlike a map, which creates order out of chaos, these paintings emphasize the glancing view from the street and the mockery it makes of any attempt to codify what encompasses us. In a number of them, a strong bisecting vertical in the form of an electric power pole forces a visual detour to either side of the composition, and a paradoxical appreciation of the penetrability of the flat picture plane.

Of the portraits and figure studies included here, two stand out. One is a large charcoal drawing of a plump nude woman standing in a factory-like studio (In the Drawing Studio, Carla Posing). As sculpturally and solidly drawn as she is, her head is missing or erased, in effect transforming her into an airy apparition that is at once bountifully fleshy and as insubstantial as a memory. Time passes, the flesh wastes away. Without having to be explicit, the drawing captures the fleetingness of mortality. The other, Christina, is a small painting of the tilted head of a blonde with dark eyebrows and a subtly artificial expression. It nicely captures the way the gender of faces can fade in and out.

The rich variety of this show testifies to Witkin's ability to breathe new life into old genres. In his work, the old link between the theatrical and the painterly continues to be nurtured.