Images of Uncertainty | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Images of Uncertainty 

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at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through October 24

For a horrible second or two after you trip on a broken sidewalk you're completely in flux--with arms flailing and bags flying, you don't know whether you're going to catch yourself or fall. But that's a minor anxiety compared to life's more devastating, less readily resolved moments of instability--those times when a loved one dies or suddenly leaves, when your sense of security is shattered and you scramble to retrieve your balance. Susan Rothenberg's best paintings, the ones that make the retrospective of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art worth seeing, are images of separation and imbalance that stir up all sorts of anxieties--shock, unease, fear, a longing for solid ground. They're so fluid, so lacking in complete, tangible forms that they're extremely hard to hold in memory--you've got to be right there in front of the canvases to fully appreciate them.

Consider Bucket of Water (1983-'84), one of the largest canvases in the show, in which a riot of fluttering brush strokes never quite coalesces into solidity. A tall, shadowy figure balanced on one leg lifts or drops a bucket; one long violet arm, seeking balance, snakes out into space while the other skitters up and down. Short, choppy vertical strokes of white are massed around the figure so that even its surroundings buzz with movement. It's an unrelenting picture; save for a few blank spots of canvas around the edges there's no place for the eye to rest.

Bucket of Water comes at the midpoint of Rothenberg's career; this survey of her paintings and drawings from 1974 to 1992, organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, begins with the fairly large-scale horse paintings for which the artist is probably still best known. In a video accompanying the show, Rothenberg, who moved to New Mexico in 1990 after living and working in New York for 20 years, says that at first she considered the horse a neutral and quiet image to which she had no emotional attachment. It was simply a means to edge her way out of the minimalist aesthetic that dominated mainstream painting during the 1960s and '70s. Yet what's most interesting about her early horses--abstracted, featureless silhouettes always seen from the side--are their small but potent emotional moments; they are sometimes mysterious, sometimes even irrational, but rarely are they neutral.

In Cabin Fever (1976), for example, a side view of a large galloping horse fills the width and breadth of the canvas. Rothenberg's nervous flecks and strokes of paint--both horse and background are the color of red clay--enliven the potentially static composition. But what carry the painting into more intriguing territory are two inexplicable elements: a second, black horse, pressed up close like a shadow or alter ego behind the red one, and a vertical line dividing the canvas in two, pinioning the horse(s) like a pole on a merry-go-round. The two horses almost fit together, yet don't quite; their movement's arrested, their bodies split in half. Drained of grace and power, they look uncomfortably trapped within the confines of the canvas.

Compared with Deborah Butterfield's freestanding, uncannily lifelike sculptures of horses made from sticks and mud or scrap metal, Rothenberg's early horse paintings are downright clunky, almost childlike. Her elegant style--subdued colors, wavering contours, and fluid, fluttering brushwork--doesn't mask an overall uncertainty of form; many of her horses are ill-proportioned creatures with flaccid sacks for heads and odd little knobs for ears.

But in the late 70s Rothenberg made a number of changes that jolted her horses to life: she exchanged the rather passive side views for more aggressive and confrontational head-on views, abandoned her warm, pleasing earth tones for a starker palette of cold whites, blacks, and blues, and broke the horses apart, severing limbs and heads, floating them unattached in empty fields of white or squeezing them into more constraining vertical canvases. The angst previously only hinted at by her use of shadowlike doubles or straight lines splitting up canvases is now unmistakable.

Even when whole, the horses of the late 70s are unsettling. One of the best is Pontiac (1979), in which a massive galloping white horse pounds directly toward the viewer; a large blue-black bone crosses the canvas as though tossed up in a last-ditch attempt at protection--as though the animal's energy, finally unleashed, were so overwhelming it must be held at bay. The paint is thicker and more active as well: jumpy strokes of gray swarm around the nervous blue-black contours of the animal's torso and legs, increasing the sensation of unrestrained movement. The inexplicably blue head (still featureless, but now made of muscle and bone) is one of many unexpected, illogical moments within Rothenberg's paintings--the pale violet elongated arm in Bucket of Water is another--that throw things just a little farther off kilter.

Rothenberg's drawings from 1979 are among the best work in the exhibit as well, many of them as compelling and complete as the larger paintings. In an untitled drawing made with acrylic paint and flashe (a French vinyl-based color) the paper just barely contains the energy of three forward- facing galloping horses. The small scale of the central blue horse, crushed between its two larger companions, creates an intriguing ambiguity: while it might be farther back in space, it might also be a colt both constrained and supported by its parents. Throughout the exhibit curator Michael Auping has placed Rothenberg's drawings alongside her paintings. Some, like this untitled piece, work well alone; others--small doodles that illustrate the genesis of Rothenberg's ideas--hold less interest.

Of the drawings, those made with deep black charcoal during the mid- to late 80s stand out as singular visual statements, different from any of the paintings. That's partly due to the medium: in even the least talented hands the smudgy, smoky softness of charcoal can be appealing. Rothenberg's charcoal renderings of dancers, drawn with large ominous knots of whirling black lines, are faster paced than anything produced by the movement-obsessed Futurist painters.

Rothenberg's work has extreme highs and lows. A considerable portion of the show is devoted to the paintings and drawings Rothenberg made in the late 70s and early 80s of smoking or vomiting severed heads and head-and-hand configurations drawn on canvas with crayons. In a catalog interview with Auping, she says many of the heads are divorce images, "the whole choked-up mess of separating from somebody you care for." But I found them strangely uncommunicative, like masks that suppress rather than express feeling. Even so, they demonstrate her admirable willingness to take risks, to explore new thematic and stylistic territory.

In the 80s Rothenberg rejuvenated her paintings once again, this time by switching from the dry, rather thin look of acrylics to the more luscious texture of oils. With the change in medium came a change in emphasis: fluidity and movement are the major preoccupations of such canvases as Bucket of Water, Mondrian Dancing (1984-'85), and Biker (1985). In them Rothenberg amasses countless short, flowing strokes of color to create shifting grounds. Her figures dance as though on water, beginning to merge with their surroundings, losing their contours altogether. Parts of the cyclist in Biker are painted with the same orange and white paint as the surrounding space, so that even as he shades his eyes to see where he's going, he appears to be literally losing ground.

Throughout the show, one painting soars while another falls flat: Spider (1987), a painting of a group of dancers, has the jumpy brush strokes of other work from the same period but none of the psychological edge. Movement investigated for its own sake seems less compelling for Rothenberg than movement as a metaphor for inner unrest.

Here and there among the wrenching, occasionally heavy-handed images of distress in Rothenberg's most recent paintings are a few tender moments. In the keyed-up Orange Break (1989-'90), whose field of warm cadmium reds harks back to the early horse paintings, two fragmented, twisted torsos fit together like hands in gloves: there's something both silly and endearing about the way the ears of one figure tuck comfortably behind the knees of the other. And here, as elsewhere, Rothenberg's color works against expectations: for this primarily sweet, lyrical piece she employs hot, violent colors, yet for more agitated subjects like the galloping/fragmented horse paintings of 1979, she uses cool, serene blue.

In a way Rothenberg's come full circle: once again, as in the early horse paintings, she's melding figuration and abstraction. Most of the canvas in Chinese Goat (1992) is given over to busy, swirling layers of white paint, but within it a few fragmented red-and-blue forms surface: a partially visible goat, a couple of hands, some legs or arms. Like Pontiac and Bucket of Water, this work bursts with movement. Multiple, conflicting points of view--we see the goat from the side, but the hands from above--increase the dizziness. As in so many of Rothenberg's paintings, the fragmentation is disturbing, but overall the scene's more playful than anxious. It's like a giddy, nonsensical dance in which uncertainty and imbalance delight as much as they dismay.

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