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Material boy
The juicy fruits of Aaron Fink at the Alpha Gallery
BY WILLIAM CORBETT

" Aaron Fink: New Paintings "
Alpha Gallery, 14 Newbury Street, through December 4.


When Aaron Fink first began to show his work, in the early 1980s, his paintings bore the influence of Philip Guston. Influence is too mild a word. Fink didnít borrow; he stole, which is as it should be. The pussyfooters tend to stay in thrall to the masters who inspire them. Fink, who at 47 years old is in mid career, is bolder than that, as can be seen in his current show at the Alpha Gallery and in the sumptuous new book that chronicles his career, Aaron Fink: Out of the Ordinary (Hard Press Editions).

The evidence of Finkís theft from Guston is on page 53 of Out of the Ordinary, in the painting Hand Holding Cigar. This 14-by-12-inch oil ó small for Fink ó depicts a hand turned toward the viewer holding a cigar between thumb and forefinger; a wristwatch is visible on the wrist. Guston often drew and painted this image, memorably in a late work that has the hand turned palm out holding a cigarette and paintbrushes while pulling the bead chain of an overhead light. Painted in the year of Gustonís death, Finkís image is valedictory and can be read as his farewell to Guston, giving him the " V " sign for victory. The book makes it clear that Fink learned from Guston and moved on.

What Fink took from Gustonís late work is the idea that you can create a powerful painting by putting a single image on a largish ó say, four by five feet ó canvas. It is such a simple idea that only the painter who works with care and passion can bring it off. Early on Fink painted hats, walking men, smoking men, and martini glasses. It was enough for him to get the image up there. As he grew as a painter, he learned how to animate the paint, how to charge his surfaces so that the power of his images is deepened by the sort of intimate looking that a juicy, all-over surface elicits.

His strengths are on abundant display in his current show, which celebrates the publication of Out of the Ordinary. Eleanor Heartney wrote the text that accompanies the more than 200 lavish illustrations. This is the kind of attention painters who work in Boston rarely get ó letís hope it signals a further crumbling of the provincialism that has kept Boston from recognizing its own.

Finkís show is a good one, but I am going to begin by looking at its weakest painting, the large (six by five feet) Scholarís Cup (2001), because it provides such a clear contrast to what he does well. The cup sits at the bottom of the picture, with steam ó enough to come from a manhole cover ó rising and swirling above it. The problem is that the image is too small, and since it does not hold you, the paintingís surface has to do all the work. And because that surface is unable to sustain this demand, the space is lifeless. This is a failure not of technique but of composition. The relation between Finkís image and the space around it needs to be just right. The image needs to be bold, to fill almost the entire canvas; when it does, the rest follows.

Whereas during his last decade Guston discovered and pursued images with deep personal associations ó shoe soles, railroad spikes, cigarette butts, light bulbs, naked legs ó that he lifted into the mythical, Finkís images are impersonal in the sense that we all have associations with strawberries, peppers, seashells, and roses. These sensuous natural objects are in a different class from Gustonís manmade objects. We never wonder why Fink paints what he does, as so many did when first looking at a late Guston, for the objects that mean the most to him are familiar to us from art and advertising. Think of the rose, and then think of what it takes to renew our attention to what has been so immemorially sung and painted. I am reminded of Gertrude Steinís pointing out that with her line " a rose is a rose is a rose " she brought the rose back into English poetry, resuscitating it after centuries of cliché. I am not going to claim this feat in painting for Fink, but in his Blossoming Rose (2002) he achieves an appealing freshness. You wonít have to put pennies into the water of your memory to keep this rose from wilting.

Fink does this by almost filling his four-by-five-foot canvas with just the flower, a many-petaled unfolding pink rose. Its size gives it a tough softness. Its presence is sensuous to the point that words are rendered immaterial before its materiality. Fink spreads his paint with squeegees and knife blades so that it smears; in places, he lets the underpainting show through. In the flower itself he has blended his pinks, whites, yellows, and oranges so that the rose is both itself and the light in which we see it. He further likes to let the play of watery dripping passages and stray lines ó yellow in this picture ó take our eyes where they will. And since the mid í90s, he has employed a barcode of lines he makes with the toothed plastic multi-purpose spreaders that plasterers use. This might occur anywhere, and it comes across as an aspect of both the painterís and the paintingís personality. He does not like to interrupt his paintings with his signature, and his images may be impersonal, but Fink is in every inch of his paintings.

The effect of all this is pleasure and, in his red peppers and pink-mouthed seashells, a voluptuous sexiness. In these pictures the paint looks squeezed on, and the skin has on close inspection an almost foamy quality. These horizontal single-image still lifes measure five by six feet, which seems a perfect size for the balance between image and surface that Fink wants to achieve. The image works to concentrate the eye on the paint, and this intensifies the pleasure. Finkís are not dopy gorgeous paintings, but their claim on the mind is through the senses, through love of materiality that takes pleasure in itself. He is one of those artists who let you know how much they enjoy what they are doing. His paintings remind us of what is lost in the blizzard of images that we live in. The agenda of those images is to inspire in us a heat-seeking voracious desire that new shoes, sex, money, pizza, and whatever can never quench. Aaron Finkís paintings provide a shelter from this storm in offering us sensuous pleasures that they are prepared to satisfy.

THE ALPHA GALLERY needs a word or two because it and Fink have a unusual relationship. I know of no other painter of consequence who shows in a gallery operated by his family. Alpha is run by his father, Allan (Finkís mother is the renowned painter Barbara Swan), with the assistance of his sister, Joanna. The gallery is a single, beautifully proportioned room that you enter in the middle. It is one of those rooms that paintings almost always look good in. On the street side there is an office flooded with daylight. Visit it and look on top of the bookshelves to your left where a large ceramic brush loaded with red paint sits. During the early 1990s, Fink made a number of such sculptures of his then signature images; there are four pages of them in Out of the Ordinary.

I assume this family arrangement deprives Aaron Fink of that most common irritant to painters, the way their gallery does business. Perhaps he does complain as loudly as any American dauber, but his complaints surely take on new forms. He canít have much but praise for his cheerful sister, who when asked what it is like to represent her brother says, " Great fun. I never get tired of talking about his work. " She adds that the barcode in his paintings reminds her of the way the ceilings in the Newton home of their grandparents were painted. Itís the sort of insight you wonít hear in many other galleries.

Issue Date: November 14 - 21, 2002
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