THROUGH THE LOUPE
March 19th, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein
Landscapes in the Chinese Style
at Gagosian Gallery Chelsea
March 1 – April 7, 2012

detail: Landscape with Grass

Integrating some of the thinking inspired by Kenya Hara’s “White” I continue to work toward gaining the habit of seeking graphic and artistic works that exhibit as much indefinition as definition, places where things might, will, occur, rather than a documents of decision, renderings of completed acts. Hara uses “Pine Trees,” a work by the Japanese artist Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610) to illustrate this kind of artistic vagueness, arguing that “the painting’s very roughness and omission of details awaken our senses.” So I went to the Gagosian to see one of the world’s more graphic artists — graphic in the sense of graphic design and graphic in the sense of explicit imagery. The Roy Lichtenstein paintings on view, Landscapes in the Chinese Style, are reminiscent of “Pine Trees” in that they are modeled on Chinese landscape paintings not too many steps removed from Hasegawa’s painting. Lichtenstein’s meditation jolts these images into a new medium and a new, culturally remote, context by giving them his treatment. As if they had been thrust under the bright lights and microscopes of the modern western focus. Or loupe. In a way the paintings look like photographic reproductions examined under a loupe, revealing the famous monochromatic Benday dot patterns. But the scale is off from the view under a loupe because when viewing the actual paintings you have both perspective and the close-up at the same time. You can stand close to the paintings and just look at the dots. But from most reasonable distances you are very aware of the dots while the mountains too appear, vaguely, hazily, just as Hara suggests about “Pine Trees”, ultimately imposing their presence even as a kind of absence. This is the greatest attraction of these paintings for me. That they at once model a crisp, mechanical reproduction style and a suggestive elusive long view. The technique is documentary while the subject and overall result is evocative and atmospheric.

detail: Pine Trees

detail "Pine Trees" Hasegawa Tohaku. Scanned from "White" by Hara Kenya.

The little boats, the little bridges, the little people are jarring in their simple distinction, their clarity and toy-like banality. The affect is like someone telling a silly joke during a moment of solemnity as if unwilling or able to tolerate the possibility of any sentimentality. These little groundings in the modern (material, mundane) world end up being the most graphic aspects of the paintings. Not the dots. The dots, though sharply defined and placed, come together as a whole to exhibit an inchoate exchange with the natural world with enough looseness and grandeur for an emotional response. The dots do what Hara would like us to see better graphic works as doing: they create a space and occasion for engagement, the opportunity to bring something of our own lives to the paintings.

detail: Pine Trees

detail "Pine Trees" Hasegawa Tohaku. Scanned from "White" by Hara Kenya.

This openness and simplicity are what make the paintings modern more than the incongruity of the figures and furniture which don’t quite subvert or seriously alter the main subject matter. This is also what brings them closer to “Pine Trees” in sensibility than what might be seen from the Song Dynasty. The subject matter is simple and, for the most part uncluttered. And almost incidental. Lichtenstein says about these that “I’m not seriously doing a kind of Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature”. But they have a relationship with that kind of contemplation, with the kind of contemplation that arises in looking upon paintings of landscapes and even landscapes themselves. While most landscape paintings are illustrations that might provoke the moods and emotions of viewing an actual landscape, Lichtenstein’s paintings are more like symbols. And being symbols, they have a vagueness and exert an opportunity for expressive engagement that even actual landscape paintings can lack.

detail: Landscape with Grass

Williams Trent