In The Skeleton Bird Is No Fisherman slender loops of paint make reference to costume; later, in 20 Pound Iron (a work on paper) these marks are repeated (in pencil), and here the hand of the artist is very present: I can see every hesitation, every place the artist’s hand stopped along the way. The colors in the two are similar, but are softer in the painting and clearer on paper. I find these loops again in Ash Under the Boulder.
Everywhere I find birds: a most satisfying taloned harpy eagle rises to my peripheral vision in Kashmir and the Soda Can; a strangely-plumed egret appears to fly in Mike Ceader. There is a quatrefoil device in Mike Ceader that is also repeated and then is repeated again; and, on a pale blue line that bisects the canvas this mark is nearly repeated a third time, but here the artist places a three-lobed mark – a trefoil – instead, which resembles a bird’s horned foot.
Looking at White Well I find two faltering lines: the loops again. These guide me in, partly my eye wants to travel downward toward a darkened maw that has teeth built up of white oil paint, but the I see stains above in the colors of flowers: greens and dead browns and pinks. These stains are the kind of fortuitous thing that paint does, and as such they are a gift to the artist, and to a viewer; Whitlatch, rather than rely on his serendipitous bounty, chooses to overlay part of this stain in shades of gold and ochre-tan, following almost the design that chance gave him with what results in yet another stain, this one made by his hand. A chance move is doubled with a purposeful action by the artist, and the power of each is increased. Great restraint is required not to ruin something this delicate.
Luke Whitlatch’s paintings in Hand of the Slumber Man engage me by suggesting mythologies of native American peoples and they also re-mythologize a pre-Modern relationship between a singular human and the American Western landscape; his use of the bird motif suggests a kind of story-telling about wild and autonomous creatures – and these are things that pictures can do (or, as is the case here, the suggestion of pictures). Then, while I look, while my mind is occupied with these stories, my eyes find passages of paint that tell another kind of story: one of relationships between materials placed near and against and on top of one another, of the mercurial nature of a medium and of its curious reactions, and of choices made by a hand and not made in the brain – and this is what paint can do. Luke Whitlatch achieves a wonderful synthesis of the two in his paintings at Richard Heller. Despite an existing criticism that paint is the conservative choice among contemporary media, painting is fascinating beyond the sum of its parts, and paintings, given enough time, can show much more than any moving picture or digitized scene.
Luke Whitlatch, Hand of the Slumber Man is up through Saturday, February 16 at Richard Heller Gallery.
The artist’s website: http://www.lukewhitlatch.com/