The vivid color and semi-abstracted imagery of Alan Loehle’s Rome Series of paintings, at Marcia Wood Gallery through April 21, come as an exciting shock after years of canvases offering a muted palette and mysteriously atmospheric representation.
What the new works share with the previous portrayals of snarling dogs, hanging cuts of meat, and a dancing dwarf is the possibility of leading literal-minded viewers (or literary-minded viewers) astray. Loehle’s images always look like they must be symbolizing concepts, but it is more likely that they are organizing pictorial space and eliciting strongly primal emotions. Our deep-seated wish to tell stories about images that engage us leads us to think that all this must hold explicit significance. But deep experience itself seldom has a clear meaning—our encounter with the world is more immediate than the language that describes it, and parts of it will always remain unconscious and inaccessible to interpretation.
Loehle entered into the Guggenheim Fellowship, which made these paintings possible, with a specific desire to keep his encounter with the city of Rome outside of received historical meaning, and work on a pre-linguistic, largely visual associative level. He writes in his artist’s statement, “I didn’t want to be a tourist or feel reverence for the art of the past. I sensed that I had to go as an archaeologist, to dig through layers of human experience to address memory, history, human-ness, and maybe even myself. Ultimately, everything in Rome became raw material—the Belvedere Torso, a street beggar, a gum wrapper, a Velazquez, a tree, a street sign, graffiti…all became interconnected.”
Loehle is an unusually self-aware artist, so his conclusion, “The layering of Rome filtered into newly layered drawings and paintings,” is right on target. But the types and styles of the layers reflect Loehle’s personal filters more than they reflect Rome itself.
The crudely confrontational rendering, flattened picture plane, and child’s-primer palette are so reminiscent of the German and Italian Neo-Expressionist painters of the 1980s that it is fortunate that Loehle chooses to reveal the real source of his primary dialogue with a historical figure. A page in the catalogue reproduces some of the postcards from R.B. Kitaj that constitute one of the personal and visual encounters behind these paintings; they appear alongside Loehle’s explication of the meanings of the mixed symbols of Rome Belvedere (Remembering Kitaj)—the Belvedere Torso juxtaposed with a Rome beggar’s club feet; Italian glass (not readily recognizable); a large dog; things that ordinarily would not form a single body of imagery, though some of the contrasts and relationships are self-evident.
Without the supplementary texts in the catalogue, we would be seeing mostly oblique neo-ex translations of Loehle’s primal visual symbols: yet another crazed dog in Rome Dog; an emphatically phallic devil in Sistine Lust; a winged skull in Life and Death I (Hard to be Human), wreathed with what we find out is orangutan fur (it would be impossible to discern this from the image alone). This last image appears in conjunction with a comically contorted cartoon of a seemingly panic-stricken or at least highly emotional face, with a very large set of male genitals dividing or uniting the two heads—summing up the comedy and tragedy of the masculine human condition as effectively as in any Renaissance allegory.
Does it matter if we recognize Egon Schiele’s deathbed portrait of Gustav Klimt amid the skulls of Death Painting (Loehle’s homage to his recently deceased father), or if we know the oeuvre of R.B. Kitaj? On some level, all of this is essential to full comprehension of Loehle’s enterprise, along with the echoes of generations of painters’ confrontation with the immense legacy of the city and culture of Rome. Even the twenty-first-century contrast with the prescribed emotions and approved experiential checklist of the young aristocrat’s Grand Tour is relevant to the understanding of these paintings.
But Loehle’s work is intended to function on a more deeply psychological level, however much it owes to all of the painterly strategy and historical background he has absorbed. And on that fundamental level of sex and death and the gut responses to shape and color we have inherited from our own early childhood, these paintings succeed brilliantly.
They also succeed, however, on the aforementioned level of historical dialogue, and of embedding that dialogue of styles in aesthetic complexity. The ambiguous entanglements of these paintings stand in stark contrast to the simple evocations of raw sensation in so much of the work by Loehle’s younger contemporaries.