A painter plumbs dark subjects—anxiety, loss, 9/11—with a deceptively simple and bright style in this lush coffee-table art book.
Rath, a Brooklyn artist, has a technique that might be called childlike if the child in question were a precocious Picasso. His acrylic-on-canvas compositions are flat and depthless; his figures are rudimentary and archaic to the point of cartoonishness; wind and the flight paths of insects are traced by curving vapor trails. But an unsophisticated look doesn’t mean a deficit of imagination, visual interest or creative resources. His landscapes and cityscapes—the bulk of the selection—teem with gnarled trees, creeping vines, buzzing wasps and ornate flowers, and throb with rich, chiaroscuroed colors—arresting red skies, black rivers, cool blue nightscapes. Yet the people who move through them seem too distracted and glum—such as the ones in the satirical “Happy Couples United in Heaven”—to notice their glowing surroundings. Rath uses this contrast between intense settings and numbed, depressive human affect to address a wide range of subjects. Some are personal, such as a series of paintings provoked by the death of his wife Laura; some, such as “Trickle Down Economics,” a portrait of a nude man rummaging through garbage, are overtly political. Rath’s 9/11 series features fireballs, panicky crowds and pensive subway riders. It seems that only when people are entirely absorbed into nature, as in “Old Couple,” a portrait of Rath and Laura as trees, that they can really be happy. The author includes some written meditations on his art and captions for a few of these superb color reproductions. Sometimes these writings are unnecessarily didactic (“This painting shows the thousands of people walking home to Brooklyn, while the World Trade Towers burn,” reads the caption for “Exodus”—and, sure enough, it does). But Rath’s more poetic reflections—“Laura came to me in dreams, beautiful and vigorous. She walked in a field of diamonds”—reinforce the impact of his already very expressive paintings.
An engrossing feast for the eyes and the emotions.