I FIRST SAW JOSEPH HASKE’S PAINTING nine years ago at Sears Payton in New York. I have been following his exhibitions ever since. The simplicity of his imagery, conveyed through richly developed surfaces, apppealed to me. Surface quality is, quite possibly, the most difficult aspect of painting. Here was a painter who had husbanded his craft to serve the delicacy of his chosen forms. The loveliest of them allude to natural forms or to the kind of decorative patterning that appears on Buddhist thangkas or in manuscript marginalia. In other words, images that contain within themselves a formal order.
Haske’s work was this season’s opener at Addington Gallery, Chicago. “Ginkgo,” below, is one I had seen in his New York studio before it traveled to Chicago. It is a large diptych that joins a rectangular canvas to a square one to form the contours of the Golden Rectangle. Sometimes called the Golden Ratio, it is said to be a divine proportion, the most pleasing of all geometric sequences found in nature. Whether that is a bit of superstition (Pleasing to whom?
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), I can’t say. But what Haske does with it is undeniably appealing. On the left, a graduated rivulet—based on a river painted on an old Japanese screen—undulates diagonally down the rectangle. Its gestural curve is answered multiple times in the succession of gingko leaves in the right hand section. The interplay of gold leaf and dark wash creates the tactile, weathered look of an ancient wall. Aged frescoes come to mind. The whole is a thoroughly contemporary image that hints at a languorous blend of Eastern and Western iconography.
A professor of painting a Parson’s School of Design, Haske cites the writings of Carl Jung as an influence on his work. His iconography derives from “a continual search though the subconscious for potent visual archetypes and symbols.” That Jungian trope, more popular among artists than it ought to be, is hazardous. An artist’s subconscious is no more interesting than anyone else’s. More significantly, archetypes are not personal inventions; and private symbols do not communicate to the collective. It is the artist’s eye that counts. And the eye needs something to be faithful to.
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Without the discipline demanded by fidelity, images tend to wander, as in “Red Square:”
Haske serves himself best—and beautifully—when he applies the grace of a refined touch to something substantial, gradually reducing substantiality to a ghost of itself. “Wreathe,” the suggestion of intertwined leaves veiled by partial erasure, accomplishes an evocation of something remembered, revisited in a dream. It is a very different, and more difficult achievement, than inventing an imaginary simulacrum of the contents of one’s unconscious. Tethered to an objective reality (without being imitative), the ethereal quality of “Wreathe” acts upon the eye in a way similar to which music acts on the ear: