Lichtman's '21 Small Paintings' presents a challenge

by Christopher Moore | 10/1/01 5:00am

Susan Lichtman's exhibit of mostly recent oils on linen, "21 Small Paintings," shows in the Hopkins Center's Upper Jewett Corridor (the hallways on either side of the Hinman mailboxes) through the middle of October.

Lichtman's dark interior scenes display poorly in this less than museum-like setting (especially on field-trip days for local elementary schools), so at first they might remind one of earlier, vaguer Pierre Bonnards dragged through the mud (no offense meant -- pretty mud, I mean). Bonnard does not deserve this comparison, and in further analysis the comparison does not capture much of the sense of Lichtman's oeuvre. Her genre work proves rather formulaic.

A table foregrounded supports a still-life of bowl or book or flowers; two people -- a couple, or mother and daughter, or two friends, or man with dog--slightly interact, backgrounded at the top of the painting, usually in a doorway or in some skewed chairs. Some of these domestic scenes don't make obvious sense (especially "New Painting on the Wall" [2001]).

Others do, but boringly: little girl would like some food, for example. The paintings mostly hide the figures, as if time (and the deep sepia hue of the paints and the graininess of the representation borrow oldness from photography) prefers the immutability of objects.

People drift back, their pointless lives of fondness and worry and companionship unimportant, yet maybe just important enough to deserve a corner on the canvas.

Most obvious in these paintings is the paint: thickly knifed on, it catalogues the narrow but deep range of browns: mahogany, cinnamon, chestnut, raw umber, burnt sienna.

Like earthen clays left uncovered by sod, the paint has fallen victim to desertification, the canvas left parched.

The brighter colors, maybe a shock of light on a backroom credenza, do look wet, and float above the painting, an oil-slick on an old road.

Lichtman's technique is quite good, when stared at for a long time at the proper angle. Her works, which are very flat, take time to reveal their topography. In Lichtman's neatest accomplishment, the color lines (the meeting of two fields) crease, as if the paintings fold into three dimensions of origami flattened only in an illusion.

We see each scene from a strange perspective, floating who-know's-where in a living room : "Copy of Round Table" (2001) gave me vertigo, its unnatural angle dizzying. Yet her sense of balance, top to bottom in exact proportions to a Rothko, side to side by the weight of the figures, helps the coherence of pieces in which organization is difficult to see.

For some reason this exhibit includes several pieces, like "Waterglasses and Laundry," in which much of the primer still shows through, upwelling archipelagos of painting wandering as if lost. "Waterglasses" looks like a study, or the beginnings of a bad pastiche. Is she challenging the idea of completion? Her challenge still needs work.

One could grow to like her works, like a medium-sized painting of two Dutch-looking fish on a platter on a table, if hung more appropriately, maybe in a well- but indirectly-lit corner of a room with wooden walls where one would see it intimately and over time.

Brown is brown, and life is boring whether knowingly so or not, but many of Lichtman's paintings (particularly the ones on the Spaulding side of the Corridor) deserve a closer look.