strange beauty installation - detail

Friday, June 12, 2009

Back and Forth

By Kim Russo
of the Journal

Like the artist Philip Guston (who died in 1980), Rita Bard fails to abandon abstraction for figuration or figuration for abstraction. Instead, the two modes of explaining the world, in Bard's work, slosh around together in ways that are exciting and disturbing, illuminating and stupefying.
The sloshing mixture of figuration and abstraction is nearly literal in “15-09_AC,” in which swirling, expressionistic brush strokes of paint take up almost the entire picture plane. The painting itself might be coming into being, or perhaps an idea is coming into being, or perhaps this is an illustration of an actual explosion somewhere out there in the world. It is hard to tell. The way Bard paints and sculpts is cartoony: often flat, sometimes expressionistic, but always in a short-handed series of marks, colors and shapes.
In her current Center for Contemporary Arts solo show, “Strange Beauty,” Bard wrestles with the history of image-making, object-making, and pure formalism. “4-09_AC_48x64,” a painting, is dissected by two primary green lines which suggest a road, framed on either side by black capital T's suggesting telephone poles. Thick black lines intersect the canvas from edge to edge without revealing their source or intention. The painting is both pure, flat abstraction and a descriptive landscape, and it is possible to perceptually switch back and forth between these two ways of understanding the picture.
“strange beauty,” a small mixed-media sculpture, is made primarily of store-bought, figurative kitsch. In this cartoon-style butchering, the plastic, square head of a person has fallen off the body of a stuffed donkey, much to the pleasure of a plastic bear on one side, and a little Dutch boy at the opposite end of the tragedy, who is looking at the decapitated donkey's rear end. It's a challenge to squeeze out a narrative story, and perhaps there really isn't one. But there is something familiar here about life's absurdity and the horrifying beauty that surrounds us. Bard has painted many parts of the miniature diorama with yellow and brown paint, and the obliteration of features and smearing of details reduces portions of the sculpture into abstracted shapes, colors and textures. A bear gives way to the color yellow; facts give way to opinions.
For all of Bard's clear love of formalism, it's hard to ignore the literal objects in her work — the stuff we recognize and subconsciously give meaning to — in order to accept Bard's paintings or sculptures as abstract or primarily formal. That's because Bard intentionally contextualizes the objects on occasion. In “Drive-in,” a cluster of toy animals have been placed directly on the floor, facing a Bard painting that has been installed very low on the wall. Although the animals have been painted with globs of non-objective color so that they become shapes instead of things, the animals are all facing the painting as if they are viewing it. Bard's choice to flip back and forth between figuration and abstraction is visually and conceptually a lot of fun, but it is also somewhat confusing. In the world of art, confusion can be a good thing. And it can be a bad thing. It depends.
In her artist's statement, Bard writes, “I am interested in simple shape and color. I'm very interested in experimentation. I like a certain quality of candor and visual frankness although much of my work upon superficial glance appears absurd and edging toward complete abstraction.” Her words suggest that she has a deeply felt opinion about that world that she wants us to discover. But Bard doesn't make that discovery particularly easy. At the moment, Bard's formal experimentation is speaking louder than any philosophical commentary she might be infusing in the work. And this is why the imagery seems random and absurd.
“There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth ... that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself...” Philip Guston said. “… We are image makers and image-ridden.” Guston understood that objects and images have meaning and power and he was fully accountable to that meaning and power. When Guston used an image (a cigarette, a KKK hood, an artist's palette) he intended all the messages that came with it, in the same way he intended the messages that came with all of his formal choices, including color, mark and scale. Instead of fearing the literal and symbolic meaning of an image, he honored that meaning and used it to frankly and clearly present his point of view.
Bard is a consummate formalist. But what's even better is that Bard's work mimics the (mixed-up and yummy) Jell-O salad of contemporary life, and that is both observant and brave. Her work is a picnic of tenderness, humor and honesty. But the more Bard trusts her point of view and makes imagistic choices to match, the closer she will get to riding the fence between figuration and abstraction instead of sitting on it.