The Gorgeous, Kaleidoscopic Works of Consummate American Artist Lane Twitchell Are on View at Midtown's Artemis Greenberg Van Doren


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Some artists 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.


There could 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.


Fanatical 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."


After a 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.


Twitchell's 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.


For every 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.


Of course, 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.


Twitchell's 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 religious.


"Lane Twitchell: Private Property," through Feb. 9 at Artemis Greenberg Van Doren, 730 5th Ave. (57th St.), 445-0444.


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