It was barely six months ago that I wrote about William Buchina’s solo exhibition, Time to Speak a Human Language, at the Lower East Side gallery Garis & Hahn. Although it is unorthodox, I suppose, to do a follow-up after such a short period of time, the prolific Mr. Buchina has already come up with a fresh body of work that takes his pop-narrative approach in a compelling new direction.
And it’s a direction contrary to the premise that attracted me to his work in the first place. Last fall I was intrigued by the way Buchina’s paintings mimicked the multi-paneled look of comic books and graphic novels while avoiding an overt storyline of their own. Rather, the multiplicity of images coalesced into “an implied, almost inchoate narrative that, in the majority of the works, allows no one element to stand out on its own.”
There were also paintings in Time to Speak a Human Language that did not use this multi-paneled format, opting instead for a single composition incorporating dozens of outlandishly attired figures gathered inside large, anonymous, hangar-like spaces. I gave these works short shrift in the review because they lacked the formal interest of the gridded images, and their cryptic actions within an arbitrary-looking locale tended toward bizarreness for its own sake.
In his current exhibition, In and Around the Water at Slag Contemporary in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the artist has put aside the multi-paneled grid entirely to present a thematically cohesive set of canvases filled to overflowing with large, roiling crowds. The difference between these paintings and the single compositions in his previous show is the specificity of the scene, which snaps the wayward imagery into focus.
Taken together, the six paintings on display (five large — between 36 x 54 and 60 x 80 inches — and one small, 11 x 14 inches) form a panorama of a full-immersion baptism-cum-freak show, apparently set sometime in the final quarter of the 20th century. In the gallery’s press release, the artist reveals that the intention behind the show was to portray “a lost ritual, emulated over time again and again” until its “purpose and logic” are forgotten “and new, random and unrelated elements take over.”
Not only are the ritual’s purpose and logic lost, but so are the faces of most of the participants, hidden behind masks, hoods, blindfolds, cones, and other concealments. The lower portion of each painting is taken up by a river or lake, black as pitch, where the “lost ritual” is taking place.
Painted in acrylic, the figures are rendered in the artist’s characteristic high-contrast black-and-white, as if they were pen and ink drawings, while the stretches of sky above the crowds, as well as the negative spaces of the numerous pictorial inserts (reiterations of the comic-book stylings in Buchina’s previous work), are done in flat, poster-like monochrome. The consistency of theme and approach contribute to a cinematic sweep from canvas to canvas — a long tracking shot shifting slightly in perspective and scale as the action moves from the riverbank to a rotting dock to a two-tiered concrete structure built against the water’s edge.
As I mentioned in my earlier review, Buchina acknowledges David Lynch as a major influence, which doesn’t come as a surprise, but strange as it may seem, the filmmaker I kept thinking about while studying these works was John Ford, who invariably included “Shall We Gather at the River?” — his favorite hymn — on the soundtracks of his Westerns. I doubt that this is anything the artist intended, but there can be an argument made that the costumes worn by his characters wouldn’t be out of place in Stagecoach (1939) or The Searchers (1956), and that his foursquare compositions and plainspoken renderings can be seen as correlatives to Ford’s straightforward blocking and unfussy camerawork.
As long as I’ve taken it this far, it is also possible to think of the paintings comprising In and Around the Water (which are individually titled to evoke times of the day — “Early in a Clear Evening”; “During the Warmest Hours”; “While All the Others Are Working”) in terms of the foundational myths of American exceptionalism, which Ford had no small part in propagating, and the perversions they have spawned.
In the artist’s previous show, the paintings included references to Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, and to the Watergate operatives Charles Colson and H. R. Haldeman. Stevenson lost both times to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had chosen the Red-baiting Senator Richard M. Nixon as his running mate. Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon, and Haldeman was Chief of Staff; both ended up going to prison. In my review, I cast these names as “reminders of what might have been” in recent American history, “and how wrong things have gone.”
Full-immersion baptism, the central metaphor of In and Around the Water, promises rebirth after a life led in darkness, a credo adopted by Colson in his post-prison career. Claiming to have found God on his way to the pen, a few years after his release he founded the Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit ministry catering to the spiritual needs of inmates (an endeavor recognized, in a moment ripe with historical irony, by a Presidential Citizens Medal awarded in 2008 by George W. Bush).
It would be a leap to suggest that Colson’s personal history was the trigger for Buchina’s new works, but it wouldn’t be out of the blue, given the well-documented slime trail that begins with Nixon’s Southern Strategy and culminates in the bone-chilling candidacies of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. The focus of these paintings, however, is not the Nixon regime but the late-‘80s transition from the Reagan Era — deemed The Worst Years of Our Lives in the title of Barbara Ehrinreich’s book, published in 1990 (if she only knew what the coming decades held in store) — to the inexorable rise of the Bushes.
What sparked this line of thought was a detail found in “Before the First Meal of the Day” (2015), in which the face of a distant, tiny character, nearly lost in the crowd, is obscured by a placard reading “DUKAKIS.” As insignificant as it was, this puzzled me (as did the apparent portrait of the former Massachusetts governor that covered the face of a man carrying out a baptism in the foreground): why Dukakis?
As failed presidential candidates go, he was certainly not in the same league as Adlai Stevenson. But his 1988 bid was partly undone by a racist campaign waged by then Vice President George H.W. Bush — now universally admired as an elder statesman — who dredged up a rape committed by an African-American convict named Willie Horton while on a temporary release from prison thanks to Massachusetts’ weekend furlough program.
There is another, equally small, partially obscured sign in the picture that reveals only the letters “ERLIC,” which I took as a reference to John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon’s advance man in the 1968 presidential race and later his domestic policy chief, who also went to prison over Watergate. In a recent article written for Harper’s Magazine, author Dan Baum recalls a 1994 interview with Ehrlichman (who died in 1999), in which he stated:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. […] Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
It may seem as if I’m spinning a lot out of two minuscule details, but their presence clearly tips the interpretation of the painting in a distinct direction. The only additional name I found among the other canvases was “BORK” (in “While All the Others Are Working,” 2016), a startlingly relevant reference to Robert Bork, Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, whose defeat by a Democratic Senate has been the subject of much commentary over the past two weeks.
Reagan’s “Morning in America” re-election campaign co-opted John Ford’s iconography of Manifest Destiny and in the process formalized the current strain of American exceptionalism — a belief system that ignores the degree to which racism and genocide enabled the European expansion across the continent. The clues drawn from the details in these pictures allude to the divisive, reactionary politics that have been at work over the past half-century; their historical specificity grounds the flagrantly outré goings-on — and there are a lot of them — in a nightmarish reality that feels, upon reflection, not all that far removed from the ugliness we’re witnessing in the paintings.
One of the notable aspects of these images is that most of the characters are observers, peering through their masks at the handful of initiates undergoing the apparent baptism. Could they be the ghosts of Nixon’s “great, silent majority” who, in his telling, supported his tactics in Vietnam? Is the black river they’ve gathered around in fact a pool of oil, the engine of wealth for the Bushes and Cheneys? What kind of redemption, or rebirth, is this, in which the participants appear joyless if not coerced? And what are we to make of the glimpses of tenderness that appear here and there among the otherwise torturous episodes in the inserts?
Buchina keeps us guessing without falling into obscurantist traps, if for no other reason than the horror he depicts is steadily being eclipsed by the horror of actual events; the otherworldliness of his characters’ masks, costumes, and actions is no more disorienting than what has been emanating from the endlessly metastasizing Bush/Cheney wars, not to mention the most inane and destructive presidential race in modern history.
Using the razor-tipped tools of a satirist, Buchina offers one artist’s vision of where we’ve come from and what we are, but without a hint as to where we might be heading. That’s the electorate’s job, and it’s not going well.
William Buchina: In and Around the Water continues at Slag Contemporary (81 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through April 3.