New City: Chicago
August 5, 2004
By Michael Workman
Perhaps less to evoke the musical influences of Whodini on his work than to attempt a literal interpretation of the song title, Rich Lehl's canvases are an adventure in fantasies of a gothic banal. Much of the imagery in "The Freaks Come Out at Night II" at the West Loop's Aron Packer Gallery will likely prove familiar to viewers. Fast-food restaurants, foggy trails through dusky woods and a darkened highway overpass are only a few ofthe backdrops borrowed from city and suburbs. Through these environments, lonely figures wander, flashlight or disposable soda cup in hand, aimless and unshockable. In a few instances, Lehl depicts the sudden injection of the uncanny or of traumatic natural violence: a white-hot meteor, for instance, suspended inches away from its descent to the parking-lot asphalt. Lehl's figures are all male and always dressed in about the same clothes (even a jogger wears a white shirt, black pants and shoes, for instance) and are typically painted to appear as anodyne as their surroundings or, conversely, as fantastic. In "Iceberg," a nude male figures stands in profile, arms at his sides, staring submissively off the canvas as a glowing night sea shimmers in the foreground. Isn't he cold? Such limp surreality has the potential to either dully mystify or induce mild contempt at the limitations of such an aphoristic style.
Lehl founds his images on an attempt to convey his daydreamers' limitations, willfully caged as they are in the activity of their daily lives and obsessed with a sort of prideful reserve, simultaneously humble and lonely. In this woman less wortd, Lehl's subjects accept their reduction to the absurd. In minimizing their role in the world, Lehl often represents his subjects as nothing more than the clothes they wear: in such portraits as "Invisible Man," for instance, Lehl portrays a single figure defined by a pair of pants, shoes, a fluorescent orange traffic vest, glasses and cigarette. In "Hat," a bowler separated from its owner drifts past in the breeze. No human presence, male or otherwise, characterizes the use of the apparel as other than mere decoration. It's this vacuity that figures the man stranded passively on the iceberg, his canvases notably bereft of such human reactions as rage or indignation. Lehl's subjects do not fight or challenge their condition; they long for a natural, morally appeasing way out——where none exists.
Lehl's oils depict basic distortions of daily life tinged with an unmanageably desperate, impossible need for escape. In "Nocturnal Emissions" for instance, a teenage boy, suspiciously similar to the boy on his bike in E. T., sails with a jetpack above the rooftops, propelled upward by the power of his adolescent sexual unconscious.