see things big and others see things small. Lane Twitchell, whose beautiful
kaleidoscopic works are now on view at 57th St.’s Artemis Greenberg Van
Doren, does both. Combining big-picture historical narratives and a romantic,
esoteric search for his own personal cosmology, Twitchell hoards symbols like
a magpie, building wild constructions of paper, color and plexiglas that captivate
the eye and send the mind spinning in multiple, sometimes contradictory directions.
hardly be a more American artist today than Twitchell. Raising his whiteboy,
solidly middle-class status into the upper reaches of the exotic, Twitchell’s
milquetoast background recalls the explanation John Berger lofted to explain
the cussedness of Gustave Courbet: "The region in which a painter passes
his childhood and adolescence often plays an important part in the constitution
of his vision." Twitchell was born in Salt Lake City, raised in Utah as
a practicing Mormon and instructed in that weird mix of frontier pragmatism
and hokum that Harold Bloom dubbed "the American Religion" and Joseph
Smith called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
in their archly American brand of conventionalism, Mormons have made of their
once sect-like faith one of the best-organized, fastest-growing religions in
the country. Add to this the fact that intermarriage has turned the church’s
membership into a quasi-ethnic minority and you have a people whose identity,
like the Jews’, is tightly interwoven with race, literal scripture and
the land it purportedly bequeathed them. The Jews of North America, as the Mormons
have been called, were the perfect group for a landscape-obsessed artist like
Twitchell to be born into. It was this coincidence, certainly, that led his
onetime dealer, Jeffrey Deitch, to portray him as more exotic than the Japanese
artist Mariko Mori. "It is a fascinating irony," Deitch went on. "[Lane]
has positioned himself squarely in the middle of the American middle class."
few years of painting and drawing the truncated expanses of the American landscape
in the form of gaudily colored Levittown houses, Twitchell achieved a revelatory
breakthrough. Through the use of a unique fold-and-cut paper technique informed
by traditional handicrafts like quilt- and lacemaking, he stumbled upon a hybrid
of painting and modelmaking capable of literal replication as well as the suggestion
of information overload. What Twitchell calls his "space-age folk art"
connected intimately to the quirky, late-90s return to technique and craft,
as seen in the work of artists like Tom Friedman, Kara Walker and Fred Tomaselli.
Using this newfangled format to tackle his big subject, the myths and realities
of suburban America, and his small subject, his own place in the world, Lane
Twitchell has resolved his many-layered narratives into neat esthetic gems:
ur-American visual allegories conspicuous by their elaborate facture and their
elegant, mandala-like symmetry.
current exhibition marks both a departure and a continuation of his previous
work. Still investigating America’s westward expansion and the physical
and psychic environment wrought by car and convenience culture, Twitchell has
modified and extended the cut-paper format that has been his signature. Twitchell’s
massive doilies, now grown in size to accommodate the artist’s expanding
vision, have changed to allow for a new system that sandwiches individual layers
of paper between sheets of plexiglas, doing away with the frames that previously
encased his work. That the artist has also taken to painting the plexiglas sheets
in vibrant colors adds even more new collage elements to the already heady mix.
But perhaps the biggest novelty in Twitchell’s present show are the instances
in which he frustrates his trademark symmetry, a strategy that seems to correspond
to a slight shift in subject matter.
symmetrical work in this exhibition, like Eureka! Stepping Through the Rearview
Mirror, One Discovers the Golden State (Motovu #2), a gorgeously radiating,
multicolored wheel with cut-paper palms, telephone poles and Vegas-style motel
signs for spokes, it is possible to find a work that the artist has deliberately
pulled off-center. There is, for example, Truth or Consequences, a powerful,
sunset-colored series of grids that yanks the eye left and downward while mimicking
the landscaping of Walter de Maria’s famous Lightning Field. Made
after a trip the artist took to New Mexico and Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation
in Marfa, TX–together with James Turrell’s Roden Crater and
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, late modernism’s largest, most
grandiose and literal landscape paintings–Truth or Consequences bursts
with color and detail in homage to the quasi-religious awe inspired by de Maria’s
earth work. A third picture, The Swirling World of Ersatz Earth, directly
references Spiral Jetty, underscoring the artist’s embrace of America’s
Mount Rushmore school of artists as another component of his critical preoccupation
with the American landscape.
as with all of Twitchell’s work, the magic is in the details. A superb
picture done in the old style, The All Seeing Eye (From See to Shining See)
overflows with colorful information, including brick siding, branching capillaries,
starburst intersections and the artist’s own eye, reproduced, it seems,
as many as 100 times. The exhibition’s largest and best work, Eye Ninety,
also packs a wallop of visual information. A virtual tapestry of details, its
13 multiple-colored vertical bands contain silhouettes of state emblems, one
for every state that Hwy. 90 cuts through on its way from Boston to Seattle.
narratives are not always obvious, and their literary complexity can be misleading.
It is important to reinvoke visual pleasure where a full understanding of the
work requires the artist himself to stand at one’s elbow. The works, though,
in all cases, are so visually florid as to overcome even the most intense brain-splitter.
Their beauty, complexity and virtuosity are certainly reward enough. But the
larger history they chart–the drastic change from a nation of modest, pedestrian
railroad villages to a jumble of sprawling car-centered suburbs, a move the
artist has described as a transformation from Manifest Destiny to tract housing–is
not simply a hollow postmodern cliche. It is, instead, one of the fundamental,
deeply frustrating facts of America in the 21st century. "True paradises
are ones we’ve lost," Proust said. Lane Twitchell dovetails his amazing
artistic skill and considerable critical faculties to recover, in elaborately
invented pictures, an American paradise whose fount can only justly be termed
Twitchell: Private Property," through Feb. 9 at Artemis Greenberg Van Doren,
730 5th Ave. (57th St.), 445-0444.