Roy Lichtenstein


Foster Gallery; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Through July 6

Once again Pop god Roy Lichtenstein has turned his genius loose on something old, or borrowed, or blue, and made it fun and new. We've always been able to look forward to his next move like we would a new cd by a great band, or a new book by a great author; knowing that it would change us, forever. We count on this from art, and life is gray without it. Lichtenstein's new show at the MFA, Landscapes in the Chinese Style, does not disappoint.


These large, pale dot-patterned paintings get the juices flowing despite their shortage of juice as paintings: they light up the space. What we get here instead is a different kind of treat, something dictated directly by the subject, something rather dry and airy and cerebral. The result is stilling. We contemplate them and are even amused by them, and unlike so much conceptual art, they engage and elevate us, and bring us inside their humor.


Fascinatingly enough, these are paintings inspired by paintings inspired by paintings; in 1994 Lichtenstein was intrigued by a Degas exhibition (technically monotypes and pastels) based on Chinese landscape painting. The lineage is ironic perfection (made in china was once synonymous with cheap imitation; the French are original and inimitable; Americans are the great improvers), and for certain this must please the artist; he is nothing if not ironic, and parody has always been his bag.


Could he possibly be poking fun at Chinese landscape the way he has at everything else? Yes, a little, but in his usual good-natured way, miscievously turning an ancient spiritual tradition into a milk carton/billboard travesty. Not to mention how ridiculous the tiny figures look as they dot the abstract expanse of the canvas (some of Turner's pictures are silly in the same way; an almost existential perspective: the smallest nod to the human race: mankind vs. the awesome void).This painter made famous for stealing the effects of print for painting and directly quoting romance comic book images keeps taking reference to a new level, and again what appears so deceptively simple brings new meaning to the word deception.

From the outset, however, it is the experience of scale which dominates this exhibition. From the relationship of figure to surrounding landscape to canvas to gallery space to viewer and back again, we are challenged by a deluge of spatial relationships. We become like the figures in the paintings, scaling the "great outdoors." In all of this these paintings invite us to reconsider a cherished classical ideal: is the larger-than-life figure truly heroic? Aren't these bug-like creatures far more true to life, and doesn't their solitary struggle, while less grand, seem more daunting, courageous, and noble? Lichtenstein may only be interested in the pictorial possibilities of reconstituting a printed reproduction of a Chinese landscape painting back into a Lichtenstein, but the spirit of the source not only survives, it triumphs. Now there is irony. Perhaps in the end the joke is on the artist.


This exhibition was a perfect companion to spring, like kite-flying on a blustery sunny afternoon. Lichtenstein and Chinese landscape make an unlikely match, and who would have guessed that we might look to this perennial art jester for such a good and gentle reminder of just how really small we are? Landscapes in the Chinese Style is an unexpected eastern tradewind for which this, well, grasshopper, is truly grateful.


Addison Parks: Courtesy ARTSMEDIA Magazine, May 1997