For an arts community with so many roots in the tradition of realist or representational painting, and then too the same in photography, all grappling with the incessant materiality of life in a somewhat rural locale, it certainly is a coup for Iron Tail Gallery to bring to Lincoln “If Things Work Out,” the realist painting of 34-year-old Texan, Robert Weiss.
While this show demonstrates all the compulsory efficiencies that any realist painter worth his brush should have down pat, including some traditional landscapes in an adjunct hallway, and several excellent small portraits in the nooks and crannies, the main event here is a tour de force, a triptych Inner Sanctum, featuring three large-scale paintings of aspects of life in and around (the wall label reports) Galveston, Texas, where a decade ago Weiss documented on film the devastation after Hurricane Ike (2008). And then the main event in the triptych is the central panel, a straight up visionary painting of an antique funeral bed for babies, found in the attic of a mortuary, by Weiss and a mortician whom he got to know well, seeking out a sense of history from him. The remarkable fact of this painting is that while most people coming upon this macabre object would feel creepy, as, as Lesey’s Wisconsin Death Trip taught us in the 70s, the mourning customs of olden times can seem bizarre, and even unseemly, and for that emphasize its ghostly hauntedness, its macabre sick effort to deny death by laying out a deceased infant like she was just sleeping in her crib, even to imagine a grief psychosis in which a grey corpse is kept in it to deny its death, Weiss has none of that. He paints for us the eureka of its discovery, and in doing so manages to turn a memento mori into the reparation that comes after the shock of sacrifice, to make of it a symbol of life and how it just goes on. It is a startling painting, with an instantly iconic quality, without a touch of fussiness or mustiness, how, then, did Weiss achieve such a moment?
The key to me seems to be in the decision to enfold this panel at the center of a triptych, and, then, to make use of different applications of realist painterliness in each panel. On the left panel, we see a rather more mediated rendering of a house that has apparently survived a flood, or storm, and, though it sits up a rise, has had to lay out all its ruined furniture on the curb. The jumble of objects in the foreground block us from entry into the middle ground, trapping us in the melancholy of seeing a whole life reduced to ruin, and, worse, in that sort of situation, one’s precious things, keepsakes, valuables but also not-at-all-valuables that one still cherished as part of one’s nest of things at hand, all of the stuffing of our subjectivity knocked out of it, and left as just pure dense object, junk. It is never a pleasant encounter, and Weiss makes use of a lighter application of paint, and a sketchier way of figuring out objects, in order to catch this mood. An offputtingly high fence reinforces the “do not enter” aspect of the view beyond. But then these distancing effects are a set up to counter the fact that the house is all lit up, “like a roadhouse” or, as Nick said of Gatsby’s house, “like the World’s Fair.” While normally such an effect would induce in one another outsider-looking-in effect, as if to a party one was not invited was going on, this rendering casts the house, seen apparently just as the last blue sky is departing, as a stubborn survivor, it has taken a hit, but it will forge on. There is a hint of doubt in the light, more so when contrasted to the foreground forlornness, but, in his management of the grounds, fore and middle, Weiss demonstrates genuine command of what might be called the cinematographic demands of a painterly realism that still seeks to create a semblance of the fully experienced world.
In the panel on the right, Weiss gets even more indirect, using a host of distancing or Verfremdungseffekts that likely have something to do with, since paintings within paintings show up a lot, the problem of being a realist painter in a mediated world, a situation made worse on the other side of the equation by living under big skies in open country. His devices here harken back to Larry Rivers’ efforts in his day to accommodate representational painting to the mandates of what appeared at the time to be an entirely Rauschenbergian universe (Bob also from the Texas Gulf Shore), but they also have about them some possible cryptic import, not unlike the paintings of the Dresdener meister of mixed up space, Neo Rauch, in which case folks like O. Louis Gugliemi, Kay Sage and Peter Blume also lurk in the background. Weiss, as he also shows in Interior in Syracuse, does “paintings within paintings,” very well (others in this panel). Why this should be is an issue? Perhaps Weiss acknowledges that by this point in its multiply post-realist periods realist painting exists in two universes, the contemporary arts, but also in the everyday arts of what people just put up on their walls, or even (my specialty) motel art copies thereof. His paintings inside paintings seem less contested than the struggle of the work at large to fix these subjective panels into realistically perceived space.
It is also possible that Weiss conceptualizes realist painting as happening inside the mind, or in the space between eye and object, and, for that, has cast it into a counterreality, its shoulder turned to reality, to then try to capture exactly what the seen and thought about world looks to him. In Interior in Syracuse too it is to be noted that the sitter has his face obscured, replaced by a cryptic mask partaking stylistically of Francis Bacon, George Condo, Iroquois “false face” mask (Weiss studied at Syracuse), and even the interference-with-image effects like you see in scary spirit photo movies like Shutter or The Ring, all made to seem odder atop a Fairfield Porter-dusted prof: what this seems to say is that you cannot tell what is going through a mind by way of a face, and, in the same way, there is no guarantee that what goes on canvas in any way relates to what is seen by the artist looking at reality. Overall, it would take too long to detail the various strange effects that Weiss marshals to convey an uncertain attachment to the world (here. and also in Troubled Landscape and Salient Interior), but they would relate to painting in a way parallel to the vocabulary of visual devices in film might, as, for example, the dolly shot (distance shifts), the aerial shot, the 360 pan (spin effects), the close-up, the montage, the dissolve, the color-drench, what I call spazcam effects (so popular today), etc, etc. Weiss uses these effects to as it were screw his lens in and out, closer to or further from the real, to concede, in a post-realist manner, that ih he cannot paint grounded realism anymore, he sure can paint not being able to paint that. How are you to “read” them? I would suggest just following at best a three-step triggering visual chain reaction (abandoned drawing leads to possibly flooding river with maybe pyramid in the distance? plumbing-suggestive forms rise up monsters to knock a pole down on another painting-in-painting?), and see what you come up with, you are left free to piece it together however you manage it.
Which brings us back to the central panel of Inner Sanctum: again, why is it free of all such devices? Why is it, like one of Eric Fischl’s tour de forces, just straight up painted up? I think the answer is, first of all, in indexicality, comparing it to the other panels (and works in the show), a concept which marks part of a work as “closest” to the ground of reality behind the painting, compared to the more ornamental or mediated parts of it. For example, in Renaissance painting, first in Florence, then in Van Eyck, there was the painting, but then there was always one small part of the painting that was believed to reach back to supernatural reality itself, behind the painting, usually it featured upside down backwards writing (Ecce ancilla domini, Here is the handmaiden of the lord) coming out of an angel’s mouth, sometimes an actual miracle image, or acheiropoetoi, would be inserted into the painting, at other times an actual physical relic was placed in, so that at that spot, while everything around it was a work of art made by man, therefore “media,” that spot in the middle was divine, and a holy place which merits getting down on your knees to address it in a different way, immediately. The key to this concept is that this effect was created vis-à-vis, that is, in relation to other visuality not like it.
In a secular context, a return to straight, enthusiastic realism in reaction against mediated effects represents an insistent symbolic act, with a clear cult drive behind it: we live in a wasteland, but at certain moments we have these uncanny epiphanies of contact with something deeply symbolic, and this contact provides us, like a celebratory meal after a funeral, or the laying out of the bones of a sacrificed lamb on an altar, an affirmation, after death or trouble, that life goes on, that reparation has been made, the community will heal, we will heal. Weiss also showed at the gallery a 20 minute film about the mortician who owned the home he spied this object in. Though I did not screen it, one can imagine that thinking of a man who has seen so much death would posit him as a kind of high priest who leads us into a place at the top of the ash heap where we are better able to resign ourselves to death a bit more, and have hope. This is why there is not a trace of mournful “freaking out” at the macabreness of this object, it is painted with glowing color, light let in from a skylight, enhanced by being surrounded by dark crawlspace walls and floor, its long veils are draped lovingly, the surface of the bedding inside the crib is so rich you half think you might see a baby or hear it cry itself alive, it bespeaks, out of the queerest of strange encounters, resurrection. And the uncanny effect is also emitted precisely from trying to elicit this response indirectly from such a macabre object, and to explain why Weiss might have used this object, I quote Burkert, “the art…was suspended over an abyss of dread that was continuously torn open in feelings of guilt and sacrificial expiation. Apollo (at Delphi) would speak only through the raving woman sitting on top of the covered tripod” (Homo Necans, p. 130). It’s easy to problematize realism, and continue to slog through the gray areas and counterforces of its demise as a favored status style in contemporary art, but it is rare to see realism reenlisted to, in the context of a triptych inviting comparative gazings, capture, in all its weird wonderfulness, an epiphany itself, once again. For this, then, Weiss’s Inner Sanctum is a mysterious and strangely satisfying centerpiece of this impressive exhibition.
Robert Weiss: If Things Work Out, Iron Tail Gallery, Lincoln, through March 31.