Ed Paschke (1939-2004), who is considered a Chicago Imagist, is one of the important painters to emerge from America’s heartland in the late 1960s that New York has never fully embraced. One reason for this resistance is his lifelong interest in misfits and the creepy flipside of celebrity, which implicitly critiqued Andy Warhol’s love affair with pop idols and glamour. As home to Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, New York has long been obsessed with celebrity, being cool, and with being what Martin Filler, writing about these artists, characterized as “inscrutably undemonstrative.” Paschke was never cool and, much to his credit, he never tried to be.
In contrast to his New York counterparts, Paschke’s cast of characters includes different racial types and ethnicities. They are likely to be trapped inside both marked bodies and a netherworld from which all evidence of daylight is missing. If color is a sign of health, his favorite colors are neon green, bilious yellow, brownish-red and washed-out lavender. Working from photographs and tawdry posters, Paschke envisioned an artificially lit domain populated by both celebrated and anonymous denizens. All of this is currently on view at Mary Boone (May 3–July 18, 2004) in an exhibition of seventeen paintings spanning from 1969 to 2004, the year Paschke died.
Done at the height of the Vietnam War, “Third Word” (1969) was the only painting in the exhibition dating from that pivotal period in Paschke’s career. Although it is unlikely the gallery could have easily borrowed them, I thought that “Ramrod” (1969) and “Pink Lady” (1970) would have revealed the truly disturbing and powerful place he had gotten to on his own by the end of that tumultuous decade. This was some seven years after Warhol did “Gold Marilyn Monroe” (1962), and one year after he and the art critic Mario Amaya were shot by Valerie Solanis, effectively bringing his most interesting period to a close.
In “Ramrod” (1969), which was the first time Paschke incorporated a mask into his work, he depicted a masked and tattooed wrestler whose bare-chested upper torso transitions from male to female, with the lower torso decked out in a garter belt and purple stockings, and the genitalia exposed. In “Pink Lady” (1970), he seamlessly placed Marilyn Monroe’s famed head on a male accordion player’s green-suited body. It is in these paintings that Paschke began elevating the seemingly offhand misalignments found in Warhol’s silkscreen portraits to another level.
After “Third World,” the show skips to “Sauganash” (1983), a close-up view of two identical heads wearing aviator sunglasses and peaked, visored service caps, which he derived from a photographic negative. I remember first seeing “Sauganash” at Phyllis Kind Gallery shortly after it was completed. By the early 1980s, when New York was enthralled with the sturm und drang of Neo-Expressionism, Paschke was rendering his figures in disembodied states against a ground of neon color, often shot through with rows of brighter, jagged bands, suggesting that they inhabited a world made up of wavelengths and particles. It was a lurid concoction in which aspects of Christian Schad’s pigeon-chested man and black dove seemed to have morphed into an ethereal, hallucinatory reality.
Throughout his career, Paschke was interested in bit players, wannabes and losers. In this exhibition, that means boxers, uniformed men, masked men holding automatic weapons, sexually ambiguous heads, and what I take to be a religious huckster. His portrait of William Shakespeare with a patterned yellow forehead, green make-up encircling his eyes and tufts of green hair is knowingly titled “Sonnet 2” (2003), after Shakespeare’s poem, which opens with these lines:
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
When the figures aren’t covering their faces with ski masks or sunglasses, their skin is dissolving into stippled patterns, marked with repeated motifs and decorative designs, covered with rows of pebble-like scars or partly mutated into something alien and inexplicable.
Paschke’s best paintings from the last two decades of his career–and really they are unlike anything else–are the ones in which the face or head is broken down into distinct and separate shapes and patterns. Details such as the nose, eyes, ears or mouth are isolated and rendered in a completely different color or pattern. Sometimes he further isolates a facial feature, as he does in “Surface” and “Ouvrez la Bouche” (both 1992), by enclosing the nose in a linear triangle. In “Collier a Trois” (1998), another mouth has been added to the face seen in profile. Aspects of abstract patterning and photorealism are entwined, with neither dominating the other. What distinguishes these paintings from the others in the exhibition is that they elude narrative while evoking a state that is simultaneously euphoric and agonized.
With their closed eyes and parted lips, the bodiless heads and faces seem on the brink of achieving ecstatic release. The speed bump in this reading, however, is the color. Neon green and acidic yellow hardly seem the colors of pleasure, whether sexual or drug induced. Mutation and deterioration are intrinsic features of Paschke’s view of reality. The body is in a besieged state. Bodily existence, no matter how attenuated and disembodied, means being condemned to a purgatorial state while caught inside an unstable and threatening reality. Paschke’s figures are haunted by their physical survival in an unknowable world shut off from nature – a combination laboratory and torture chamber. This is what I think is most disturbing about his work, an understanding of reality compounded by his refusal to offer the viewer a way out or the promise of transcendence.
Paschke is a religious painter whose subject is torment without release. He is a secular heir to Grünewald and his demons and figures afflicted with Saint Anthony’s Fire. He often places a sign or symbol in the palm of a hand, suggesting that his figures are stigmatic. This too contributed to the resistance to his work among New York’s art elite, who wanted idealized bodies and surface beauty and still seem to be wowed by high-end kitsch and the denial of decay and mortality found in flawless, mirrored surfaces. Paschke’s light comes from another place. Imagine a collision between Seurat’s pointillism and the molecular rearrangements induced by the teleportation machine in David Cronenberg’s sci fi horror film The Fly (1986), and you get an inkling of what Paschke can do with paint. In this, he has no rivals.
Ed Paschke continues at Mary Boone Gallery (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 18.