Stephen Posen: New Paintings

Stephen Posen: New Paintings

Essay by Lauren Sedofsky, Jason McCoy Gallery Catalogue, April 1990


When a painter’s assertive force shifts readily from the realm of pure visual experience to direct participation in the major cultural issues of the historical moment, we have a measure of his achievement. The simple trangressiveness of Stephen Posen’s recent paintings goes right to the heart of the matter, for it calls into question the enlightened complacency with which artists and viewers alike have come to accept an environment of appropriative strategies and seemingly endless artistic options. Cynicism is the real issue, a rampant cynicism that permits random access to a culturally heterogeneous image bank, that accommodates so many variations on Duchampian pedestals, Rauschenbergian collages and Lichtensteinian deconstructions. The great dilemma of appropriation art is posed by the centrality of its pre-emptive prerogatives. While it flatters our knowledgeability, it can never shock, perplex, offend, infuriate or, possibly, thrill. How Posen has managed to reach into the grab bag of visuals and, nevertheless, resuscitate the insolent impulse and the expansive response has everything to do with a return to an ancient cynicism, incarnated in the rambunctious, irreverent Diogenes, whose supreme pleasure consisted in offering the convinced and the satisfied a swift kick in the behind.

Stephen Posen has always played the iconoclast with respect to his iconography. Opting in the early ‘70s for a magisterial compendium of illusionistic techniques, he paradoxically turned his back on the pop and hyperrealist infatuation with culturally resonant objects. His paintings of cloth-draped boxes, instead, played on a troubling concealment of unidentifiable angular volumes that seemed to invade the viewer’s space in front of the canvas. More paradoxical still, their painterly surfaces, in the overall aspect of their highly wrought compositional tensions, were examples of astounding abstraction. These negative dialectics were maintained with greater planar complexity later in Posen’s painted representations of photomurals appareled in cloth configurations. Here, the exact and exacting replication in paint of two distinct layers led to a series of cognitive conundrums. The textile volumes served to subvert the implied depth of the photographic image, rendering it flat and mosaic-like. At the same time, they contributed considerably to its pictorial fullness. While the two illusionistic components repelled each other, their interpenetration was complete. The net result of these astonishingly beautiful canvases was a full recognition that figurative painting had passed, once and for all, through the essential trauma and truth of abstract expressionism.

What Posen has effected over the last decade is something approaching a psychoanalytic cure. The hyperrealist hand belongs to the hysteric. Now Posen, it is true, was never merely subservient to mastery of the mechanically reproduced image. Intellectual operations and respect for surface have always kept him at a healthy distance from the bondage and discipline of technique. But his paintings have increasingly attested to a search for pleasure scenarios, liberated, playful zones, a looser, freer brush and the expressive satisfaction of pure painting. This goes a long way towards explaining how George Herriman’s Krazy Kat emerged in his recent work.

Posen’s appropriation of Krazy Kat can in no way be taken as a case of citation. Neither a glib pre-emption of popular imagery nor its deconstruction, his use of the comic strip effaces the original graphic entity and ignores its cultural connotations. For him, the cartoon, with its summary linear configurations, its unstable perspectives and immaterial space - its emptiness – beckons like a cartone for a painterly intervention. Comic strip conventions and the implicit animation of the frame call attention to the inherent malleability of the configurations and invite violation. Posen’s response is not only a transfiguration but a transubstantiation of the comic strip material. Sometimes this takes the form of a teasing of the eye by a stripping away of visual information, at others it consists in a confounding of the brain with palimpsest-like superimposition of animal figures. In either case, what remains of Krazy Kat in the brute vitality of the brushwork and the uncompromising abstraction of the composition is a craftily coordinated subliminal residue. Flipping through Herriman’s comic strips, it is easy enough to identify Posen’s points of departure, but the characters as contours are so embedded in the painterly substance that their very existence at times borders on undecidability. The high seriousness of Posen’s approach seems to devastate our ordinary acceptance of pop propositions. Pop figures are hardly staring us in the face. Instead, abstraction is such an imposing obstacle that they are like figures in a carpet. And when the eye at last adjusts to their latent presence, we are genuinely shocked by what is “low” about them – cartoon cats and mice, after all! – and capable of retrieving the long-lost feeling of a real breach of decorum.

Nowhere is this breach more apparent than in SoHo Stories I. The painting is a “conversation piece,” depicting, as it does, a placidly and frontally composed group in an enclosure that takes on a kind of architectural ponderousness. The dimensions of the canvas (80 x 60 inches) and its verticality permit a dwarfing of the group and an elaboration of open space, vertiginous reaches, that cannot but recall, however ironically, Italian Baroque painting. Even in the contrast of densities and transparencies, there is a search for strong emotional, almost operatic, effect. Posen handles the incorporation of comic strip motifs through a series of brilliant associative exchanges. Rather than solidifying or modeling the figures, he evacuates their features, expressions and gestures, empties them, reserving depth, color and energetic brushwork for the contiguous areas. Similarly, the cartouches have been blanked out, but they are as constitutive of the structure and sense of the pictorial space as clouds in Renaissance and Baroque painting. Elongated cartouche trails create a tense, vertical thrust towards these overarching forms, whose heavily painted opacity or seeming transparency weighs on the scene with a density of meaning greater than any linguistic message. What tilts the picture into a truly perplexing angle, however, is our recognition that the figures at center stage are, indisputably, mice. Our sense of magnitude is disturbed, because Posen has been impudent enough to deploy so much artistic brio for creatures so low on the great chain of being.

Narrative frontality, so remarkable in SoHo Stories I and SoHo Stories II, gives way in The Tea to more aggressive assertions of surface. Here, Posen achieves a perfect sublimation of the comic strip image through an abstracting process that unilateralizes figure and space, liberating the drawn line for painterly interventions in a hypothetical foreground. The scene, an example of genre painting in which Krazy as courtier sings “una passion me domina,” recedes into the undifferentiated, monochromatic territory of dream or memory. His androgynous identity undergoes a dream-like displacement in the vaguely discernable feminine figure turned on her head. But the sheer libidinal charge of Krazy’s well-known masochistic passion for a sadistic yet philosophical mouse is written in the stark, colorful calligraphic overlay that hold the composition tightly in its grasp. The stroke is capital for Posen’s procedure. With a translation of ink line into paint, he is exploring the expressive potential of the medium. The subtly modulated single stroke, as it defines contour, shading, surface, substance, dimension, motion and, even, emotion, tends towards total autonomy as a sign. The precise deposit of the brush gesture, in its breadth, density, nervosity and directionality, substantizes and galvanizes what we see in the comic strip universe as animation and animism.

The incremental value of these linear “inventions” is a transparency that allows Posen to devise a system of scrims or narrative laminations. For the viewer, penetrating the solidly blocked abstraction of Ballad for Harp involves locating readable configurations and peeling them apart from the surface. Posen is working in a perceptual nether region that demarcates figuration and abstraction. And, in his habitually irreverent way, he has thrown a monkey wrench into some of our handiest art critical concepts. For several decades, our understanding of painterly abstraction has rested on a notion of an attenuation of matter, a pulverization of edge that inhibits the experience of recognizable contours. With Posen, however, we have an alarming case of an attenuation of matter and a pulverization of edge that, nevertheless, releases an experience of recognizable contours. The edge is both there and not there. Posen has purposely and purposefully provided a surface that has thoroughly absorbed its constitutive figurative elements or, more accurately in terms of the way he works, a surface built up with successive inscriptions nearly to the point of pure opticality. What is singular about the operations of the eye confronted with these figure-ground dilemmas – aided considerably by the easy retrievability of cartoon characters – is that they bring the viewer to an apprehension of the simultaneity of the distinct layers. The elements come apart, circulate, interpenetrate, often proposing an intriguing narrative sense.

Iconology may seem intrusive, if not irrelevant, when Posen’s plastic stakes are so high. Still, there is little question that the paintings delve right into the real pathos of the comic strip’s central passion, exploring its emotional tensions in an effort to make the flat solid. Telescoping the narration of a serial segment in Ballad for Harp, Posen harnesses sequential time in his layering. The frenetic formulation of two cats at the harp amplifies the musical offering. Its libidinal magnitude, so filled with a desire moving toward prayer, invades and inflates the cartouche with weighty images of wish fulfillment to a point where the cartouche must be reiterated and carried aloft by a cumulus, as in a witty Ascension of the Virgin. A similar conflation of texts can be found in the confounding Waiting for Van Gogh. What we are looking at is Offissa Pupp, Krazy’s amorous ally and Ignatz mouse’s nemesis, keeping vigil over a scene that eludes him: Krazy’s theft of Ignatz’s portrait. Yet the figures in this love triangle, as portrayed by Posen, are virtually consubstantial, blocked in a synoptic stasis. What is certain is that these multiple laminations, perceived simultaneously, coalesce into an unidentifiable entity, an independent sign. Perceived separately and successively, however, they are an endless source of meaningful resonances. Posen’s recent paintings delineate a synthesized space. To say that their spatial relations are arbitrary begs the issue, because they are constantly and consistently urging the viewer to re-orient himself with respect to ambiguous distinctions: flat and round, up and down, in front and behind, above and beneath. The eye’s peregrinations through the Arizona mesa in Eastern/Western resembles Darwin’s voyage through the atolls on the Beagle. Movement along the surface, over enough time, slowly reveals the subtle indicators of the generative forces behind form and formation. It reveals, in fact, an entirely new way to read depth from the surface. There is something meditative about Eastern/Western’s contradictory formulations of space and substance. As if in abandoning the animate for the inanimate Posen has understood that “beyond the horizon” pointed to speculations beyond what anyone might have imagined. Indeed beyond the Western landscape with its cacti lay a sky itself curtailed by yet another horizon, the abrupt incursion of a wall, an interior, domestic space in which a solid chair would seem to be the sole inhabitant. However strong its gravitational anchor may be, it exists on a plane of its own, perhaps behind, perhaps beneath the earth. Scale is a central issue in this painting, for the simply modeled chair and the deftly-drawn, angular butte overwhelm the pictorial space, confronting each other like contenders in an ontological contest. Painterliness has rarely been put to such a test as in this depiction of alternative states of materiality. Substances treated in so many different ways seem to be vying for a more palpable authenticity. What we learn from Posen, however, is that if you can really paint it, it is. What Eastern/Western and all it owes to oriental painting for its organizational freedom, he has taken cosmicomics towards the cosmicanvas.

Cynicism’s antidote is trouble-making, not trouble-shooting. Posen, in making iconoclasm a way of painting, has opened the way, like Diogenes, to boldness, irreverence, irony and playfulness, to what is fresh or insolent in an intrepid embrace of the concrete. Interrogating the constraints of his art to extinction in anticipation of total freedom, he is tenaciously charting the still unexplored distances between immateriality and the grandly material. The exploratory voyage is full of astonishing discoveries.