BY Laurie Palmer in Reviews | 03 MAR 99
Featured in
Issue 45

Paul Thek

BY Laurie Palmer in Reviews | 03 MAR 99

Interest in Paul Thek has surged since his death in 1988, although precious little remains of 30 years of his work. Some people still get excited about discovering images of his rambunctious and unwieldy collaborative installations from the 60s and 70s, although all that is left of them is documentation. This exhibition of Thek's paintings, notebooks and works on paper from the 70s and 80s presents some examples of the artist's less familiar, two-dimensional practice. It is a pink, yellow and aqua kind of show; daubed, dotted and vibrating. A scribbled voice eggs us on from inside the pictures: 'Hurrah Vacuii!' reads a tiny painting sotto voce, from the midst of a beautiful tangle of uncharacteristic reds and blues.

Almost all of the 80s paintings are similarly vacuous, or sleeping (three doze in slanted zzz's). Those with scrawled phrases beat you to the chase, pronouncing their 'content' ('puddle', 'dust', 'smithereens', 'bambi growing') in equal pace with their gestural surface activity. 'The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible', quoted Susan Sontag from an Oscar Wilde letter in Against Interpretation (1966), a book she dedicated to Thek. Susan Lecturing on Neitzsche [sic] (1987), written in vibrant yellow, refers to her. In these paintings, what we get doesn't seem like much, but the accumulation of momentary playfulness, or poignant ridiculousness, begins to build an attitude.

What Mike Kelley called embarrassing in 1991 (a compliment) reads now like flippancy and playing possum. Thek, faking death, often played possum: in his early series of sculptures Technological Reliquaries (1964-67), the 1967 installation Tomb (Death of a Hippie) , and in The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper (a collection of bronze sculptures, 1975-76). Anticipation (and glorification) of his, or anyone's, death is a repeated theme, one which contributes to charges of his being a messianic if not megalomaniacal personality. But considering one's own death can be humbling. These paintings mix humility with chutzpah, offering up a silly underside, populated by bunnies and Bambi and schools of fish and earnest floating banners inscribed with words like 'diligence' and 'compassion'. If you compare it to the self-conscious seriousness of other 80s painting (Clemente, Schnabel, et al.) this work jiggles and winks.

All the paintings in the main gallery were hung at waist height, a decision the artist made for a show in 1987 with the comment that it made you feel like you were in a swimming pool. In the side gallery of the Arts Club, one wall was hung with a cluster of approximately 15 paintings, each with its own museum lamp attached to its gold-coloured frame. In another piece, two deadpan cityscapes, lamps attached, hung low on the wall in front of a child's school chair. The effect of all these decisions (which followed the original intentions of the artist) was to place the mostly take'em or leave'em paintings (many simple, straightforward landscapes) in scare quotes, a parodic effect they benefited from.

Thek's paintings on newspaper from the early-to mid-70s don't need quotation marks. The series uses the obvious temporal reference of the International Herald Tribune, layered with a single colour wash, to ground quizzical drawings: a dinosaur, a seesaw, an erupting volcano, a hot potato, three prunes, four teeth (Church of the Holy Molar 1970), a balloon, ants, a head, etc. Because much of the recent flurry over Thek is historically interested (How does he exemplify his era? What was that time like? ) the precise temporality of the newspapers lends an added kick. These paintings seem to attempt to deal with his time as he lived it, as well as his voluntary exile, leveraged by his sense of the absurd.

It was hard not to be disappointed by what wasn't here - the collaborative, process-oriented, all-inclusive installations, and the 60s pieces with wax meat. It is also hard not to read all Thek's work through the man, whose personal life is less revealed in his intimate crafted notebooks than in most writing about his work. This exposé runs the gamut from psychologising to chastising to charges of vicious misogyny and other biographical judgements, the value of which is certainly to prevent mythologising. However, in this exhibition, what was interesting was not the life that he lived, but the voice he created and left behind.