The many masks of modern art

In the most general sense, there are two basic types of artists: those for whom art is a response to and a denial of chaos, and those for whom it's the answer to despair.

Now I realize that all artists don't fit into one or the other of these two categories, that there are many who are drawn to art for other reasons: a passion for color, a facility for drawing, or possibly a strong sense of design.

The question I would like to pose, however, is whether or not what these individuals produce is truly art, or if it is merely something pleasant, attractive, or imaginative to look at and enjoy. Something that can lighten the corner of a room or add a bit of visual charm to a magazine or book.

Isn't there, for all the talent and imagination that go into it, generally something missing in such work? Something that can evoke deeper jewels of feeling and experience than mere sensory pleasure or enchantment? Something that goes right down to the heart of human reality, purpose, and worth?

I personally think there is, and I think that that missing element is profoundly rooted in the same two basic needs that motivate the true artist: the need to deny chaos by projecting order, and the need to defeat despair by giving form to purpose and significance. And that any work calling itself art that doesn't in some way address itself to one or the other (or both) of these needs is not art.

Art's most profound goal is to put us and to keep us on the track, to remind us of life's wholeness, harmony, and design -- and to help detach us from feelings of negation and insignificance. It can do so in many ways and within many forms. Mondrian's importance lay in his vision of wholeness and perfection; Klee's in his vision of the eternal, springlike reemergence of life from within even the tiniest of forms and events; Hopper's in his certainty of the value of courage and commitment regardless of doubts and fears; and Pollock's in his total faith in intuition and impulse.

Any artist worthy of the name grapples symbolically with the basic questions of life. But he must also win that battle in some form or other, or what he produces will have little meaning or value. A work of art is always a victory, tiny or great, over those forces that erode our beings or derail our sense of the quality of life.

The problem lies in recognizing these "victories," especially if they appear in startlingly revolutionary or dramatically traditional forms. Or if they frankly and openly acknowledge their debt to art history. It is difficult, for instance, for us to accept the fact that an artist who draws specific creative sustenance from Leonardo and Piero Della Francesca as well as from Munch and Picasso can speak as pointedly to our time as one who draws only from Pollock and Miro -- or from any of our more recent cultural heroes.

It's the rare artist today who can apply Renaissance formal ideals to 20 th-century themes without appearing overly exotic or archaic. Or without creating an art that is vapidly decorative. The challenges and the problems of attempting such a thing are enormous -- and the chances of failure are great.

But there are those who try, and David Ray, a younger, self-taught, and deeply dedicated painter, is one of them.

When I first saw Ray's paintings some years ago I thought he had bitten off more than he could chew, that what he hoped to achieve required an impossible level of commitment and talent, professional skills of the highest order, and a cultural climate that would encourage his vision rather than ignore it. In particular, I felt that this his lack of formal training could easily defeat him , since he was putting himself directly in the ring with some of the greatest names of the past.

He has, I'm pleased to report, proven me wrong -- except for some technical problems that still arise because of his lack of formal training. And he did so because I failed to grasp the depth and passion of his vision, the ferocity of his integrity, and the dogged determination with which he would tackle all problems head-on. He stuck to his guns through thick and thin, and has, in the past three or four years, begun to produce some rather remarkable works of art.

Almost all of his works deal with the human figure and with its ability to give expressive form to mankind's dreams, aspirations, moods, and metaphysical implications. Every painting of his is a painstakingly conceived and meticulously plotted enigma which we are invited to ponder in all its ambiguity -- or to try to unravel and interpret according to our own wishes and needs.

He doesn't, however, make it easy for us, for his paintings stir up aspects of our unresolved and rudimentary selves we would usually rather let lie. And these tentative and sometimes disturbing qualities, which often take the form of vague but persistent feelings of unease and disorder, demand attention and resolution -- or they insist on being allowed to return to their secret lair deep below our everyday levels of awareness.

David Ray's best paintings, called into being by his own need to find order and significance through art, confront these feelings of unease and disorder and symbolically transform them into clear intimations of certainty and order. What makes his task particularly difficult, however, is his need to create an art which is bothm a denial of chaos and an answer to despair. His art, in other words, must not only be well, even exquisitely, ordered, it must also project a sense of serenity and peace through subjects that personify and project these qualities. He has been very successful with paintings that have had to do with sleep or with contemplative moods, and which have, at their best, something of the inner grace and serenity of Eastern bronze and stone Buddhas.

He has also produced a succession of rather extraordinary self-portraits. While these are often very 16th-century Northern European in style, they are nevertheless very "modern" in mood and in the kind of self-awareness and self-determination they project. With few exceptions these self-portraits include broad references to Ray's notions of the artist's overall role in society. Thus his 1980 "Self Portrait," in which he portrays himself balancing an interior-lit pumpkin on his leg, hints at the artist's importance in bringing illumination to the world.

Having written that, I have to smile, because Ray's symbols are never that two-dimensional or obvious. They function as much to evoke mood and mystery, to imply and to resonate, as to make an intellectual point. Their significances go deep, and to say of them that they mean this-and-such is to miss their point. If anything, they create more mysteries than they explain.

I feel extremely optimistic about Ray's growth as an artist. During a recent visit to his studio, I noticed that he was hard at work on a large painting of his wife and the family dog. Although it was at best only half finished, it was already a step forward from the picture he had finished the month before.

It is a distinct pleasure to see such steady growth in an artist who is going his own way without concern for artistic fashion. And he is not alone, as one can easily discover if one looks beyond the galleries and museum exhibitions and snoops around a bit among artists' studios. There is a great deal more going on "underground" than we realize.

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