New Work: R.H. Quaytman at SFMOMA

Today’s article is from our friends at KQED arts in San Francisco, where Danielle Sommer discusses R. H. Quaytman’s new work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In the 1950s, San Francisco poet Jack Spicer wrote that he considered a collection of poems to be a community meant to “echo and re-echo against each other.” A quick look at R.H. Quaytman’s new installation, I Love — The Eyelid Clicks / I See / Cold Poetry, Chapter 18, created just for SFMOMA, assures us that the analogy holds for a collection of paintings, too. Perhaps this is the reason that Quaytman and curator Apsara diQuinzio settled on Spicer as a guidepost for the exhibition.

Quaytman works primarily as a painter, but her installations are site-based and could in many ways be considered sculpture. Images are meant to “echo” — to complement and conflict with each other, and with the architecture of the room. The paintings in Quaytman’s one room show-within-a-show at the Whitney Biennial last spring stunningly incorporated one of the Whitney’s trapezoidal windows as a visual motif, making the actual window look like a trompe l’oeil painting.

With the SFMOMA show, Quaytman is again confined to a single room, a constraint that works well for her. The colors are subdued: a pastel pink just beyond cream and plenty of shades of gray. Using SFMOMA’s photo archive, Quaytman silk-screens images onto beveled, wooden panels of various sizes. The images are somehow relevant to Spicer’s work, although I’m fuzzy on the details: a snake, a creased photograph of a young man, a tripod, and a set of moons. Despite this specificity, the show is not drastically different from other Quaytman shows; while she works in “chapters” and uses specific people — like Spicer — as a way to dive into her work, her formal and conceptual concerns remain constant — and exquisite.

Techniques you’re more-or-less guaranteed to see from Quaytman include parallel lines so closely placed that they shimmer and pain the eyes, paint mixed with crushed glass, and every once and a while a flash of bright, bold color like florescent yellow or magenta. Perspective shifts and jarring juxtapositions between flat, geometric designs and representational images with deep space are par for the course, and most horizon lines lead you to a vanishing point that is off the canvas or in between two works. Shapes repeat, including a realistic representation of the edge of the wooden panels, an effect that serves to remind us that the paintings are objects, not just images.

Stare at any one painting for too long and the danger is retinal burn. The silhouette of a snake surrounded by a sea of sparkling turquoise remains as I blink my way around the room. The clutter in my retinal field builds, disperses, and builds again. Across the room is another painting with the same snake, larger and not in silhouette. Its pebbly skin is visible, and it becomes tangled with the afterimage of its cousin. There are two paintings that contain actual poems by Spicer. Each poem is placed central to its canvas, and yet each is downright painful to look at. Quaytman’s closely-placed lines prevent the text from dominating the image, although when you do manage to lock onto a poem and read it, everything in the periphery melts away.

“The poem begins to mirror itself,” writes Spicer. Poems mirror poems. Paintings mirror paintings. Images appear, accumulate and disperse, only to reappear. Jack Spicer passed away in 1965, but the rhythm and resonance of Quaytman’s installation is a reminder of more than the man. It’s a reminder of the cycling complexity of time in all its invisible and visible moments.

New Work: R.H. Quaytman is on view at through January 16, 2011 at SFMOMA.

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