Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

What's wrong with this picture?

DOUG Anderson's paintings remind me of the old Saturday Evening Post visual riddles that asked ''What's Wrong With This Picture?'' At a glance, nearly everything seems to be wrong with Anderson's picture, ''Sirens.'' A phone rings unanswered outdoors alongside a figure who totes two buckets of red glop through what looks like an ice-jammed winter landscape. Meanwhile, a rooster and a pig loiter nonchalantly as if in a barnyard.

So is the man with the buckets going to water farm animals or to douse a fire , as the blazing yellow light that falls on him and the rooster and the phone suggests? Are ''Sirens'' sounding because there's a fire? Or is the searing light in the picture that of a sunrise, or a nuclear fireball?

About these ads

A glimpse of the man's expression might clarify some of these uncertainties, but his head is cropped out of view. The jangling phone provides a built-in rejoinder to our curiosity: no answer. The ringing phone we can't answer, and all the questions the picture sets ringing in our minds, which we also can't answer, are clues to Anderson's theme.

This is a painting about the breakdown of communication between artist and public. Or, more philosophically, it is a painting about the breakdown of the idea that the function of painting is to communicate.

Anderson's painting at least is less like a message than it is like an unanswerable riddle, or an unanswerable, clangorous telephone. Its colors are ''loud,'' and its forms are toothy as saw blades. Notice that the burst of jagged forms that signify the ringing of the phone recurs elsewhere in the picture, as if the whole landscape were ringing, or were perhaps frozen into spiky crystallinity. The background trees are barely more than zig-zag patterns of viridian on turquoise, yet they look like snow-laden evergreens. The same sort of pattern on the ground makes it look as if an earthquake has just hit.

Intimations of disaster are everywhere in Anderson's style of imagemaking, as they are in the daily news. We might see ''Sirens'' as a kind of post-Pop allegory of the artist's incapacity to do more than sound an alarm, the cause for alarm having become too much for pictures to explain.

Who, then, might the figure carrying the buckets be? Well, he might be the artist himself, frozen in his tracks, as in a nightmare, while bearing pots of message-laden paint our way. But maybe a nightmare is all we're seeing here. Perhaps things aren't as grave as the painting's lurid qualities tempt us to think. For all its visual shrillness, there is a zany, comical quality to Anderson's art.

People see his work as part of the recent revival of ''expressionism'' in American painting, a pictorial mode of projecting personal emotion onto the appearances of things whose first heyday came in German art of World War I years. The New Expressionism, some say, heralds World War III years. But Anderson's art doesn't lend itself to such easy inferences, for in his work we see as much a satire as a revival of the original expressionist style and its righteous stridency.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.