Joshua Weintraub

Victrola Coffee and Art, 325-6520.

Through March 31.

Joshua Weintraub's paintings, like Cy Twombly's (which they in some ways resemble), are devilishly hard to talk about, or even to describe. Like Twombly's famous blackboard paintings and other demotic tales, they combine paint and pencil drawing, and seem to be composed of bits of things, most of which are variations on the unreadable: the cipher, the glyph, the lost language; scribblings, erasings, the faint half-rendered image, the floating body part.

Rather, Weintraub's (showing at Victrola this month, with two other artists) are only nearly unreadable--what runs under the surface is a rumbling sense of being close to understanding it all. One painting seems to be offering, helpfully, a map to the other four, with text, dotted lines from here to there, paint swatches; a series of smaller works appear to have broken down the larger works into manageable elements. These elements reappear from work to work: a crawling headless figure, an animal head hiding among other pencil marks, disembodied feet and heads. If you try to name what you see, you often come up stumped; you may feel like Adam giving names to the animals.

Weintraub mines a more melancholy vein than Twombly does--his surfaces are less animated than fraught, somehow fretful, and some of his body parts bring to mind the enervated line of Egon Schiele's sickly, degraded nudes. There's a feeling of tense paradox similar to Twombly's: the elaborately worked image partly rubbed out; the contrast between impulsive, random mark-making and deliberate systems; images and text that flirt with each other but, like parallel lines, never meet. These contradictions telegraph a palpable anxiety, sometimes rather laid back, sometimes active and intense.

As it turns out, Weintraub has been thinking about Christopher Lasch's 1970s classic The Culture of Narcissism, which, long before Oprah and pop psychology and reality television, saw American self-scrutiny looming on the horizon, and saw the paradoxical loss of anything resembling real inner life and the anxiety rising from this paradox. (Certainly these opposing forces might obliterate a figure, might literally erase it from the page.)

For all the elaborate disavowal going on in his work (the incoherent, the inchoate, the inarticulate), Weintraub himself is very articulate; when we met to talk about this current work, he led me from subject to subject so skillfully I thought myself very clever indeed. From the irreconcilable inner and outer selves, we moved quite naturally on to the problem of contemporary art, which is often a physical projection of this dilemma--some of it so personal as to be meaningless, some of it wearing its stylishness like a hard, protective coating.

Weintraub's work, instead of sidestepping the problem, throws itself right into the fracture. What is played out over its surfaces may be the fragmentary inner life of contemporary man, or it may be a lot of stylish chatter. Its anxiety is the fear of the impenetrable system, the conflict between the impulse to keep things to ourselves and the desire to be understood by others.

I haven't seen many great art shows in cafes, partly because of the quality of the art, but also because getting a good look at anything usually requires violating some social norm--like leaning over an occupied table or doing some inconvenient staring. However, what's required for Weintraub's work--your attention, a willingness to be allusive, to wander mentally away but to find your way back along a different route--is particularly well suited to cafe-time, to the interstitial hours that slip away under the influence of this or that form of stimulation. What grows from extended contact with it is a sense of (oddly) gratifying frustration with a system that refuses to reveal itself.

I know I've had intricate systems on the brain lately, what with Sorta at Consolidated Works, and Trimpin's Klavier Nonette at Jack Straw; I've also been thinking about Michael Schultheis' painted mathematics and Michelle Fierro's studio-debris accumulations. Systems are personal. This world tends to shoehorn us toward the general, but good art--even the coldest technological inquiry--pulls us back to the specific every time.

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