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Essay by Roger White
For his untitled show at David Richard Contemporary, George Rush presents a cycle of large paintings showing the same view: a room, two chairs, a table with various objects placed on it, and a view of tree branches outside a wall of windows. In addition, a group of smaller paintings reproduce details of the larger, creating a set of variation on the same image with a consistent internal scale (e.g., a carton of milk is the same size in both a smaller and a larger canvas).
The first thing that strikes us is time. The large paintings are titled in 3-hour increments, describing a 12-hour span between 5 am and 5 pm, and are arranged in the gallery according to this chronology. So, we’re given the choice to experience the show clockwise, as it were, or to wander through the installation on our own route, experiencing the works’ timeline out of order.
The passage of time is represented in two ways within the paintings. First, they depict changing light conditions during the day, through a shift in palette from one painting to the next. We notice this most readily in the scene through the window. At 5 A.M., branches and sky are given in shades of the same murky blue-gray; by 8, the sky is lightening considerably from below the window and a rosy pink delineates one set of branches. 11 brings us closest to naturalism, with the typical bright blues, dark browns, and lemon yellows of traditional American landscape painting; by 5 P.M., both trees and sky have bled into ominous oranges and saturated reds. This chromatic shift is picked up in the duller, darker colors making up the backlit interior of the painted room, though it takes the eye a while longer to notice these smaller adjustments.
If the paintings presented only this view out the window, we might take them for an example of stylized observational painting, like Monet’s serial images of the façade of Rouen cathedral. But as the daily drama of the changing heavens occurs in the background, smaller indications of time’s march take place indoors. In addition to the atmospheric changes, the paintings also show discrepancies in the position of objects within the static scene: a chair is turned away from its partner at 11 A.M. and righted by 2 P.M.; a candlestick migrates around the center of the table; three cans of beer have been spread out at 5 A.M., collected into a group at 8, and replaced by a carton of milk at 11.
This movement of objects implies a mover: who is rearranging the furniture? What is being spoken into the microcassette recorder we see on the table during the working hours of 11 – 5? Did a second person join the first between 8 and 11, moving the second chair out of position for a better view of the morning sky? Who’s been drinking all the beer?
We notice that the answer to the last question isn’t—as it would be in most realistic depictions of domestic rooms without figures in them—“the painter.” When we look at Fairfield Porter’s paintings of interiors (which similarly present the world in a simplified, almost abstracting manner), we’re aware that we’re seeing the painter’s house, his desk, his table, lamp, glass of water, and so on. This is not only because we often also see Porter himself, and his family, show up in his paintings—a possibility that Rush has so far avoided. A certain quality of the lived-in is present in Porter’s pictures and absent from these, which seem constructed rather than observed.
This naturally leads us to the idea of narrative, and more specifically to its subset, fiction. The paintings don’t appear autobiographical (chairs and a table belonging to George Rush) nor do they seem to refer to any specific real-world referent (chairs and a table belonging to John Updike, for example) or even to an identifiable category of dwelling (a typical upper-class home in Connecticut in the 1980s, for another example). Elements in the paintings exist, qua signs, between the generic and the particular, offering us plenty of opportunities for speculation (as to the who, what, when, where, and why of the pictures), but not lending themselves to any conclusions. We could say here that George Rush is like the author of the scene, but its narrator and characters are undetermined.
For a literary parallel, Alain Robbe-Grillet comes to mind. In his spare, clinical fictions of the 1950s and his later theoretical writings on the topic of the “New Novel,” the French author proposed a literature of discrete objects and formal experimentation. In it, traditional components of the novel (plot, character, psychology) would be articulated through the methodical description of places and things. In La Jealousie, the story of an extramarital affair on a colonial estate is related almost exclusively through a fragmentary phenomenology of the house and its environs: shadows of trees and beams move across a veranda, indicating time; the number of place settings at a table tell us which characters have been present in a scene.
Rush’s reduction of the world into objects is less ruthless than this—though no less self-conscious—and the mood of these paintings is less coldly alienating than Robbe-Grillet’s expert dissections of everyday life. Nevertheless, the suspiciously tidy representation of domestic sprawl begins to seem like a set of clues, hinting at identity, action, and emotion, but never quite spelling any of it out.
We’re left to meditate on the things in the paintings and the way they’re painted—on their style, in other words. Take the table and chairs: they look modern, mid-century, like the grid of windows behind them. Research reveals that they’re Jean Prouvé’s Gueridon table and Standard chairs, designed in 1930s and ‘40s by the French architect as inexpensive, prefabricated furniture for public housing and universities. Both have acquired a devoted collector base among design connoisseurs, and have been remade in less expensive form for a contemporary market. A candlestick (the only object always present on the table) is similarly ambiguous between a Chippendale original and any number of reproductions. (With the design objects in these paintings, it’s difficult to tell if we’re looking at originals, expensive copies, or inexpensive copies; this stymies one attempt to think about who exactly lives in this house.) The milk seems straightforward enough—except that the iconic, quart-sized paper carton has all but disappeared from production, replaced by TetraPaks and plastics. The microcassette recorder, too, is recognizable only because it is slightly outdated: at odds with the sense of presentness evoked by the paintings’ titles.
These objects—along with the floors, windowpanes, and trees—are painted in the same simplified manner, which gives the viewer enough details for the purpose of recognition, but not enough for us to fixate on. As with their sense of time, the view out the window is most revelatory of these paintings’ particular system of style. Two or three layers of branches (which could correspond to trees silhouetted against the sky, shadows cast onto the window itself, or even reflections of another scene through a window behind the viewer) seem to overlap—an effect of transparency created through carefully mixed, opaque oil paint. Though the shifts in color, alignment, and scale of the branches signals the movement of the sun throughout the day, on renewed inspection these changes correspond more closely to the color adjustment, layering, magnification, and cropping possibilities of Photoshop: the shifting view through the window can be seen as much as a set of formal variations as a representation of time.
The paintings therefore have a collage-like structure, in two senses. The arrangement of objects within them can be read (in the semi-fictional world the paintings create) as a collection of disparate things from different places and times. And at the level of the artist’s process, the paintings seem to be made by combining elements with different sources—photographic, manipulated, observed, imagined—into single pictures. Against this collagist tendency, we could pit the artist’s attempt to present an internally consistent world, one that respects the tenets of empirical painting and delivers the convincing, mimetic effect of realism: to place the viewer in the here and now of the painting. The act of painting folds these differences into a unified representation of a time and place, which nevertheless preserves the traces of its construction.
Here, we would seem to encounter a contradiction—a naturalistic picture that reveals its own artificiality—which has been central to the discourse of the visual arts since René Magritte, and politicized since the birth of postmodernism. But I would argue that Rush’s paintings have little to do with the critique of representation. Rather, the artist seems to propose that the ambiguities created by the paintings (their parafictionality, interpretive openness, stylistic surfeit, and unstable sense of time and place) constitute something like the human condition, in the painter’s own corner of the world: being here, now, means never quite being sure where or when you are, or if you’re there at all. High on the list of feelings that the artist is exploring, in the most traditional way, is this slight feeling of unreality.