I learned to think by watching my father paint. I wrote that sentence five years ago, in a brief essay for the catalogue of a ten-year retrospective exhibition of my father’s paintings by a small museum in New England. More recently I’ve helped him archive a cache of his canvases from the 1970’s, many of which I’d not seen since he painted them – that is to say, since childhood. Confronting an array of pictures spanning my own life on this planet, I was struck again with their implicit challenge to my understanding. Could I think about the paintings themselves? Tell Richard Lethem something about them he didn’t know? I’d begun to see my father’s work (and his life) as being defined by a resistance to – and reluctance to assume – conventional authority. To write about him while he still lived, I’d need to borrow some of his disobedience. I wanted to try. Want to try, I should say.
So, merely speak. Yet I find myself in relation to father and paintings as the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey stood before their monolith. Dumb, though making noise. Weren’t those apes supposed to grab an implement and get to work? After all, it was me that put think and my father paint in the same sentence.
As a teenager I revered Stanley Kubrick, and Arthur C. Clarke – at some point I’d have called them my favorite director and favorite writer, each (though Clarke was shed years sooner than Kubrick). And probably, as choices of favorites, Kubrick and Clarke formed an armor against threatening aspects of my father’s art, and of my parents’ world, and of our family’s life. They offered images the surfaces of which were clean of the paint-drippy, hippie-drippy, Bob-Dylan-raspy-voiced imperfection-embracing chaos surrounding me everywhere. And as images of the artist, Kubrick and Clarke felt somehow absolute in their stances of confidence, of magisterial indifference. (I know better now, but it doesn’t seem mistaken that each of these artists particularly wished to make that impression – enough to fool a kid.) So, they made an antidote for the drug of proximity to my dad – an artist whose authority was for me both bigger and smaller, more problematic in every way.
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A multiplicity of feelings and references explode across the surface and are buried deep beneath the layers of paint, surfacing only when the interstices make it right, or stay significantly hidden when there is no way to connect the edges. There is no single message. Don’t try to get it. The sheer density of allusions and compressed self-referential symbols interlocking each painting are codes for Richard Brown Lethem, not necessarily meant for narrative retrieval by the viewer.
Ambiguity is a value sought: on one hand reinforcing the complexity of human behavior; on the other hand complying with the artist’s desire to be physically involved with the sensual qualities of fluid color, the gestural drawing of the brush, and the edges or limits of the canvas or paper surface. There is no closure or clarity -the narrative has no beginning or end, the recognizable symbols or human elements are value neutral. There is no hierarchy.
Trueblood Trips Up, 1985 [Plate 1], the earliest painting in this exhibit, can perhaps be deciphered as depicting a man, simultaneously running and wounded with feverish anger. His head faces right, his body twisted towards the viewer. Initially we see skeletal legs. He is running; his right leg high-stepping so that only the fibula bone between the knee and the ankle is visible. Then we see a second set of legs, clothed in blue-gray trousers. At first glance his left arm is raised in a sure-fire, roundhouse motion to hit, strike, punch -further scrutiny shows a second left arm, again skeletal’, hanging oddly disjointed. Paintbrushes are falling. A set of angular steps begins or ends at his torso, the visceral center of his body. His face is striped. His eyes blindfolded. His mouth bloodied. The composition is diagonal, the figure extending off three edges, with the fourth corner edge a whirl of wind, energy. What are we, the viewer, to make of this? Are there two individuals in this painting, the background figure and the running foreground figure? Or just one human being, stripped of his societal garments, lost in the dynamics of blind fury, fear, or denial?
Are we trying to read too much into the painting, like a children’s book where we examine each drawing component to put together the story? Instead of ciphering, it may be more productive told,11ove with the drawing strokes, the bold sweeps of color, and let the seemingly disjointed or the myriad of symbols become simply adjunct incidentals. Move your eyes, move your body, let go of your preconceptions and the urge to categorize and chunk information into boxes. Come to these works as if surfacing from that zero space gained after rising from a profoundly deep and dreamless sleep or meditation.
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Recently, I was gallery hopping with a conceptual artist friend in Chelsea, when we came upon a work, in a rather celebrated venue, that amounted to the following: an ordinary blue balloon, inflated, affixed to the gallery floor. From the wall of the gallery, a small square of light was projected onto the surface of this balloon. The balloon didn’t move, didn’t activate in any mechanical way, nor did the light circumnavigate it. Doubtless, the balloon was to be removed in time for the next show in the space, but in the meantime, it was just there. A discussion between my friend and myself ensued, a discussion that still seems to be going on, about whether or not this machined approach to expression was of the same order of business as, for example, a painting. While it’s not impossible that my resistance to the balloon amounts to parochial idiocy, from which I may one day awake, I feel less uncertain about a later installment of the discussion, at the recent Whitney Biennial, during which the same friend said, “Well, I don’t really know what painting is for these days.”
In the contemporary instant, according to this view, painting doesn’t do what it once did, which is depict, narrate, illuminate, and suggest the painter’s hand, with the kind of alchemical imagination we associate with other heroic arts, epic poetry, sagas, concerti, symphonies. Maybe, my friend seemed to be suggesting, this kind of a painting is no longer possible. The kind of painting in which the transformative imagination is suggested in hand-made investigations of light and pigment. Maybe these kinds of effects are no longer important to visual media?
Wherever there’s a negation, there’s an affirmation in utero, and in the work of Richard Brown Lethem, in the career of Richard Brown Lethem, we see just this sort of affirmation of painting as an endeavor, painting as a heroic journey, an affirmation that challenges and makes ridiculous contemporary neglect, while ratifying in the process the traditions and imperatives of painting’s long, august history.
Think of the true present as a single, house-long room, its wooden structure containing knotholes above and below, chinks where elements of past and future leak in. Using this metaphor, we can see the painting of Richard Brown Lethem as determinedly widening these knotholes, preparing a double demolition, yanking up the floorboards, and ripping out the spines of the ceiling so his canvases ripple with three kinds of contorted light For it is his ambition to see into the split-level moment and “capture the specific quality of incident, gesture or moment in time.
Some of his paintings look honestly into our checkered past. Face it; a lot of American history is a nightmare. When Lethem remembers a Midwestern boyhood, as in ”The Falling Red Hat,” it’s not a picture of folksy merrymaking and corn husking in the manner of Thomas Hart Benton, but the portrayal of small town headsmen, scarface Babbits, filing past the coffin of the mutilated victim of a “lynching bee.” When he looks further back, as in ”The B Ward” remembering the persecution of the Quakers (a group to which he belongs), there is a depiction of Cromwellian inquisitors, ghoulishly heating their torturer’s branding iron for use on a religious dissident.
Nor has the American future often lived up to its claims. The dream has too often been sullied. With a dark, gravelly palette, as rawly and almost as grimly as in his paintings of history, Lethem depicts a hard-as-nails, but unstintingly hope-filled future. These could be the promise that our streets will crackle with positive energy, as in “Street Passing,” for instance, where a drab urban crowd is lanced by an erotic prod between two sidelong heads. Or the promise that righteous causes will register deeply in our society, redeemed in “News of the civil War” that shows the yellow fmmed victims of death squad violence flashed over an abyss like screen.
Modern art movements have generally been one-way streets. Some like the PreRaphaelites (a movement to which Lethem’s craftsmanship allieshim) dismissed perspective and looked to the integrity of the past; others, like Russian Constructivism (to which Lethem’s strong sense of form ties him) revolved about the future. They sought sparks from their heritage or visions. But the painting closest to Lethem’s heart, German Expressionism, with its naked, nearly unpalatable emotional fury, seems perversely rooted in the present. It is Lethem’s self-appointed goal to open it out. To do this honestly, to strew all this on a canvas, all our unsettled debts to the past, all our unfinished hopes for a better time, is not easy. Nor is it easy for an artist to live aesthetically in what e might call a “rented” house, that is, one rent by shattered floors and smashed ceilings, thank god, Lethem had the clear-eyed temerity to move in.
New York City, 2005
According to Lethem, Arc of Gravity, is one of his most significant paintings, for it embodies many of the themes that have been important to him in the eighties and nineties-figures caught in moments of crisis, often involving fear, confrontation, and guilt. Lethem faces life’s tragic side-:—its vexing questions and enigmas, and in Arc of Gravity, the nature of profound absence. There are a host of lost objects circulating throughout Lethem’s conjured space-:—gloves, scissors, glasses, a pocket watch, ring, book, shoe, dog, and, most importantly, the idea of an existence coming to an abrupt end. This fatal moment is that of the American poet, John Berryman, (the figure in the upper portion of the canvas),who hurtles towards the abyss, after jumping to his death from a bridge in Minneapolis in 1972. Lethem was reading Berryman’s book of poems, The Dream Songs, when he was working on Arc of Gravity, and identified with the writer’s central dilemma-his obsessive feelings of culpability and loss, stemming from his childhood shock of his father’s suicide. The result was the taking of his own life, an act caught by Lethem. Underneath the sprawled-out body of their son, Berryman’s parents hand over to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, a family portrait, which will forever be incomplete. Lethem’s responses to the anguish, like Berryman’s in The Dream Songs, consist of irony, ambiguous word play, and dialogue between characters. Ultimately Lethem braves the catastrophic only to find hope and acceptance in humanity. The optimistic component in this, one of his darkest works, might be the amorphous white form that floats in the far left, acting as sustenance for the afterlife. Altogether, the objects in this large oil leave a deeply-felt resonance, be they lost or found.
by Efram L. Burk