(Detail of) Malign Flower in Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 5' x 4', 2007
FRANK FAULKNER by Carter Ratcliff
Frank Faukner’s paintings are not just heavy with paint. They seem built from it. Thin washes of color go down first. These are like a mist of thought, of possibility, settling on the canvas. Construction begins at once, according to plans which have something in common with an architect’s. Faulkner’s drawings are detailed, first of all. The place of each dot and short strip of color is determined in advance. Just as important, Faulkner’s overall patterns develop from the immediate logic of these placements, much as the proportions of a brick wall develop, at best from the shape and arrangement of the builder’s bricks. This leads to symmetries of an elegantly architectural kind. Sometimes axes are offset or curved, fan-like form s counterpoised against the canvas’s right angles. Here the impression is of symmetry adapting itself to the demands of some difficult stretch of terrain.
Of course, the comparison with architecture only takes us so far. The word “terrain” shows a way beyond it. Faulkner’s paintings suggest dazzlingly intricate structures, then the space such structures might occupy. As his pigments and gels gather light from the room, they generate an imaginary light. Landscape appears in a flicker of warm and cool that leads far past any horizon. Faulkner’s metallic hues imply an organic forms at first glance, then flow into depth on an intricate surge of organic energy – the world’s landscapes do, after all, present us with golds and silvers, dark chilly blues and warm pearly whites. There is a rich naturalism in Faulkner’s palette to go with its brilliant artifice. Furthermore, his painting hand accepts the instructions of his drawings in a spirit of spontaneity. These canvases look alive with space and light.
As the eye is drawn closer, scale shifts. What felt like the texture of vastness comes to seem more look like the grain of an organic surface – hide or skin – yet Faulkner’s artifice persists. Architecture returns, offering its interior surfaces rather than its outward structures. These paintings cast into a high esthetic mode the impulse that gives us Renaissance metalwork, Art Nouveau inlay, Persian rugs. Faulkner evokes the decorative. He reinvents it. In his art, decorativeness pleases the eye not by lulling but by rendering it conscious of its own workings. He is a pattern painter, but in no simple way.
Most pattern painters are one-issue artists. They want to claim value for traditionally domestic images; they want to introduce non-Western styles into Western art; they try to put high-art materials to that low-art purpose I mentioned just earlier – lulling the eye. These limited ambitions started to appear in the mid1970s. Faulkner has been elaborating his patterns since 1970. And in the intervening years, his art has taken on the multiplicity I’ve suggested by pointing to the way his luminous structures shift from large – to small-scale intimations of architecture; the way they join organic with decorative energies; and the way their shimmering light, serene one moment, too fast for vision the next, opens up immense landscapes for all these allusions to occupy. Reaching past art-world issues, Faulkner’s patterns offer metaphors for much of our experience in the world at large.
FRANK FAULKNER by John Ashbery
I first saw Frank Faulkner’s paintings in about 1975, when a friend visiting from California took me to his SOHO studio. What struck me immediately was how remote from current art-world fashions his work was. Those obsessively patterned, mazelike diagrams studded with knobs of glistening plastic were more like African ceremonial masks or shields than, say “pattern painting”, a short-lived flirtation with decorative flourishes that was in any event several seasons away. When it did finally emerge as a movement, some might have been tempted to situate Faulkner’s work on its (multicolored) fringes. Yet pattern painting, like so many American art movements, came with a barely hidden moral agenda attached: low equals high, Rauschenberg erases de Kooning, wallpaper is as good as Matisse. In other words, you’re not allowed to enjoy the gilding unless you swallow the didactic pill as well.
Faulkner’s work, which has evolved slowly and steadily from its beginnings, has no pills and no gilding. If it resembles any contemporary school, it might be minimalism in music, which appears to have undergone a similar evolution. First conceived by Philip Glass and Steve Reich as, perhaps, an antidote both to too-strict and too-free forms of musical expression (Babbitt and Cage for instance – not that there was anything wrong with them, but art has to progress somehow, and this usually involves stepping on toes and having one’s own toes stepped on later on). This reaction was, of course, not without a didactic purpose of its own, but something funny happened on the way to post-minimalism – the music began to complicate itself, contradict itself, so that today it has come full circle back to randomness and the sometimes-resulting richness of all music. John Adams’ singular (and singularly unlike) recent compositions, The Wound Dresser and Fearful Symmetries, are but two examples among many. But in order for these outbursts of fresh invention to come about, the composer had to approach them through the back door of a self-imposed discipline – in this case minimalism. Each succeeding generation of artists is obliged to re-invent the wheel – to discover the art that is always there with its own newly-crafted tools.
Frank Faulkner, it seems, has imposed similar disciplines on his own work, with similar results. The hieratic patterning, the horror vacui, the compulsion to cover every inch of canvas with a pre-determined pattern are still there, as is the idea of the artist as shaman-like image-maker chained to the canons of his craft.
Over the years, however, the art has changed as gradually and as subtly as the linear decoration of primitive pottery slowly congeals and recasts itself into blocks of pattern over a period of thousands of years. The schematic underpinning is still there, but in these late works it can explode into something almost – but not quite – like brilliant chaos, as in Miasma. Here the complexity of the given task wanders off into unexpectedness in the very act of fulfilling itself. And with this comes a new and almost offhand barbarous richness of color and matiere. The patient craftsmanship of the equatorial ex-voto maker has metamorphosed into the ferocious splendor of a Scythian goldsmith’s or armorer’s work: artifacts meant to allude to the cruelty of the hunt, to passionate and savage conquests, even as they are being ritually used.
Just as his titles suggest vast geographical reaches (Continent, Sargasso), the paintings themselves now evoke huge maps with minds of their own. Or labyrinths with directional indications too infrequent to help one find one’s way out of the maze but sufficient to make one want to plunge into it. Continent, for instance, thrusts its checkered lozenge-shapes at us as insistently as a continent would press itself on an explorer. The outlines are clear, in general, but there are stray paths and counter-proposals that throw us off-balance, even though on closer inspection they too seem to be traces of a schema so large that we see only fragments of it. But for the enchanter in whose mind they exist complete, this is a matter of indifference: he knows what he knows. Meanwhile what counts for us are the gorgeous and seemingly arbitrary fluctuations of a visible dream whose roots are nonetheless deeply anchored in reason. They are like a visual demonstration of Blake’s proverb, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”