13 October 2014
NEW YORK — I’m driving in Riverdale, Bronx, NY and find myself on a winding road that sparks memories of my rural past. From Brooklyn the ride takes me through one borough, along the side of another, and across a bridge that gives entry to this unexpectedly wooded area of NYC. I made this trip recently to see Psalm 68, Archie Rand’s showing of 36 Paintings on view through January 4th, 2015 at the Derfner Museum.
Tucked away, off a quiet country(ish) road, the Derfner Museum welcomed me to another journey – that of viewing these small paintings based on a psalm that, in Rand’s words “is being recited by a gang of juveniles who’ve just done something horrific to another gang of juveniles and is crowing about how great they are.’”
Psalm 68 is a writing densely packed with proclamations of gratitude, war, peace, gladness, and judgment. Its imagery is linked to contradictions inherent both in Judaism and Christianity. The reasonable thing to do would be to steer clear of this subject. Instead, Rand has decided to revel in the freedom that ensues from the many doors that contradiction opens. It is the freedom of contradiction within the psalm that Rand has taken on in his paintings.
Using abstraction as a tool to approximate that freedom, he has conjured imagery that invents a sense of place for each verse of the psalm, while at the same time leaving them open to his own visual discovery. For the words, he has imposed every line upon his painting; adding an off white area of paint in different places on the canvases to write them on. This gives the words their own ground; they are stable and secure within the painting surrounding them.
In 68:20 – Blessed be My Lord, every day, He burdens us, the God who is our salvation, the scene is set in shadow with an orange motif in the foreground that acts as sun and moon. In 68:2 – If God were to rise up His enemies would be scattered and those who hate Him would flee before His face, impulsive brushstrokes float above a red sky or, possibly, land, while a simple yellow arch could mean the rising sun or the setting sun. Other paintings have “monsters” as in 68:13 – Kings of armies flee, they flee; And she who waits at home shares the spoils. Here, in the guise of a dark monstrous figure, a human form is apparent because it feels human.
In other paintings colors dance on the canvas to infinity, like 68:18 – The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands, My Lord is among them, at Sinai, in holiness. On this canvas there is a build up of greens, reds, and oranges meandering through the background like overlapping passages that joyfully move beneath a yellow labyrinth pulling you back towards a darker center. In paintings such as 68:4 – But let the righteous be glad; Let them be happy before God; Let them rejoice in gladness, there’s a pretty crazy party going on. Dark impulsive brushstrokes are caught in goofy figurative shapes, with flowers all around.
The paintings go back and forth between marks that become layers of surface and marks that are gestural. If I leave behind ideas of “abstract” or “representational,” I can wander in the visual belief of each painting.
I’ve had a similar experience viewing the work of Marc Chagall. There is a kind of spatial exuberance in Chagall’s work when he floats horses and birds together in the sky with planets surrounding them. Chagall creates a place to dwell in and out of sky, water, and earth; they appear interchangeable. Many of the paintings in this show feel this way.
In his book on Chagall, Werner Haftmann shares an excerpt from André Breton’s Le Surréalisme et la Peinture regarding Chagall, “Nothing shows a more positive magic than this work, whose wonderful prismatic colors take up and transform the unrest of modern times and yet retain the old innocence by portraying what in nature is the principle of joyous delight-flowers and the expression of love.” In their portrayal of the complex emotional states within Psalm 68, Rand’s paintings have this expression of love.
Rand has taken on the poetry of Judaism as an artist finding a way to another entity involved in making art; much like painting + words = a third entity, there is a “third hand,” as Philip Guston says, that enters into the art making process. This third hand is evident in Archie Rand’s Psalm 68 and was well worth the trip to Riverdale.
all images © Archie Rand, kindly provided by the Derfner Museum.