Ground Zero
John Haughwout @ Parish Hall

Things fall apart, the center will not hold, wrote William Butler Yeats. The poet’s famous
foreboding at the dawn of the twentieth century was all too prescient, and the processes
of radical transformation that have sundered and redefined the modern world continue to
multiply in the twenty-first.

It seems a spirit of prophecy haunts the arts in general, as image and metaphor
foreshadow a future which must in the nature of things always contain both death and
rebirth. Whether this is true on a global scale or simply in personal terms, the essence of
aesthetic dynamics has to do with such fundamental conditions, and the strongest art
often confronts the violence that change wreaks upon identity.

John Haughwout’s five large paintings at his exhibit titled Confluential Prismatics show
different stages in a personal journey. In three of them we see twin representations of the
painter himself, exploring a mysterious, sometimes violent landscape. A fourth shows a
backhoe, strangely packed with personality. The fifth is a dripping dislocation involving
landscape and geometric forms. These are partly artworld ‘scapes, influenced by
contemporary painterly European visions of alienation akin to those of the Leipzig School.

For instance Neo Rauch’s mutedly dissonant palette is echoed in Haughwout’s Fissile,
where two rainbow-like swathes of yellow and dirty maroon arch out of the ground. That
painting also features a stack of striated black and white bands that seem like parts of a
building interrupted by static. A range of barren mountains fills most of the sky; a pile of
unidentifiable rubble sprawls untidily at the feet of Haughwout and his clone. It’s not an
unhappy picture, but it doesn’t exude a celebratory air either. The off-color rainbow
disappears at the top into a wide, painterly smear of ocher and sienna. One of the
Haughwout pair is seen from the back, the other looks slightly bored or, at most, mildly
upset. They’re clad respectively in a sweater and an insulated vest, so it’s a little cold out
there, wherever they are.

The earliest painting in this series, included in last year’s Student Independent Exhibition
at Cleveland Institute of Art where the artist earned his BFA this spring, is the one
showing a yellow backhoe. Carefully articulated, it has a slightly hallucinatory presence
against a shadowy background of mountainous terrain, soon interrupted by a huge
crystal-shape, and then a schematic vertical division of sky. The machine sits on the left,
its toothed shovel extended like the arm of a praying mantis; and it has been digging,
though no operator is visible. Big oblong chunks of paint, fetched out of the bowels of the
earth, are stacked high toward the right hand side of the canvas. In the middle a rainbow,
this time rendered in more conventional colors, arches slightly and curls quickly out of
sight like the yellow brick road.

Something has just happened in these paintings, and is all set to happen again. Whatever
it is, you might think it’s got to be good, because there are crystals and rainbows. In other
paintings Haughwout displayed recently in a group exhibition at the Cleveland Foundation
there were even some handfuls of glitter, cascading down the sides of his mountains But
in fact in these newer works the crystals are duller, the mountains less snow-capped, and
the mood more sober, sketching a matter-of-fact ennui, plus a degree of ambivalence, or
even foreboding. It may be that the rainbows aren’t all that great after all. In any event,
the first flush of discovery has been replaced with a workman-like attitude toward the
disorienting jumble of contemporary conditions.

Another work at Parish Hall shows the Johns sitting in camp chairs at the summit of an
unprepossessing, mud-brown hill. They gaze across a sea of blank canvas at an iceberg
wrapped in mist. An oil tanker with an of array color chart-tinted smokestacks is drawing
even with the iceberg, and an exciting exchange of energy-packed, tubular rainbows
seems to be taking place. A dizzying pyrotechnic display of color and trajectory can be
seen shooting back and forth between ship and berg. But even more than in the previous
paintings the emphasis here seems to be on the incompleteness of the scene. More will
be revealed, perhaps, but not necessarily to the painter and his double. The gulf that
separates the energy source from the personae has increased considerably. The
mountain here is little more than a steep molehill and the role of the human figure has
diminished.

Perhaps fortunately, the next painting takes a different tack. The Johns are in the
foreground again, on a steep brown slope. A Rauch-ish sky spreads like a bruise
overhead, and a configuration of architectonic parallelograms and rectangles reminiscent
of another Leipzig painter, Matthias Weischer, tries to materialize just to the left. Both
figures gaze downward, preoccupied; one is talking on a cell phone. Here the geometric
components, contrasting with the brushy naturalism of all the other elements in the work,
seem like a mysterious conveyance, a UFO to carry the painter’s personae to another
land, visible in the distance at the lower left.

In visual/narrative terms Haughwout’s painting is situated somewhere between the Leipzig
school and the American painter Mark Tansey, who once said, “The conceptual should be
able to mingle with the formal and subject matter should enjoy intimate relations with
both.” In an essay about Tansey the philosopher Arthur C. Danto remarked, “The unique
value of any artwork depends on how new metaphoric relations are structured within it.” In
other words, Danto thinks there is a new freedom in the arts. Certainly it is refreshing that
Haughwout and many of his contemporaries feel they have a license to be themselves.

Haughwout’s canvases propose an unapologetic topology of the self as it is confronted
with radical transformation. Like the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters of
the Third Kind, he keeps drawing the mountain, visualizing the meeting place where
everything will change. He says about these recent paintings, “I think that artists can see
the future in a lot of ways – have a talent for knowing what’s coming. My work stems from
a hopefulness, from trying to look on the bright side. Although this period of time is
dangerous, it’s also exciting; what we do may define freedom for the next five hundred
years. I’m excited to do my part.”

[Free Times 11/22/06]