Peter Plagens And The Monster Mash

by James Mann

Review of Peter Plagens: Paintings, 1989-2000 at LVAM

Artist Peter Plagens is also the art critic for Newsweek magazine, as well
as the author of three books of art criticism and one recently published novel.  


plagens.jpg (26416 bytes)

The Digital Sea, 1996, mixed media on canvas, 84.5" x 96"


The ultimate lesson of the now-finished analytic dismantlement phase of advanced culture has been the deliberate exposure to randomness, and in a sense, the conquest thereof.   What the contemporary artistic/critical theory Deconstruction in effect does is to look at every work of art for the randomness of the artist's behavior in creating the work.  Therefore, Deconstruction is really a deeper insight into the construction of art through the intellectual exploitation of the randomness of both learning and experience.
     The exploitation of randomness is clear procedure and foundation for the paintings of Peter Plagens.  The real source of human creativity is randomness itself.  It's the only tool or means by which an innovation can be discovered and made something of.  Plagen's works are tantalizing in their selectivity.  Looking at them, one has to believe they're composed of what has been allowed to remain visible after covering over what appears to have been a furious, chaotic bout of action painting, now tamed down into irregular outcroppings on a perfectly flat field.  These patches are then edited and re-edited with more careful strokes, which nevertheless maintain an impromptu informality.  On the other hand, sometimes part of the buried chaos is covered with a hard-edged shape of pure color, which blithely ignores its own impertinence in interfering with the flat grisaille.
     Plagens' paintings seem to say of their creator, "I was working in the lab, late one night,/When my eyes beheld an eerie sight"-which I have labored serenely to distill into a digestible rectangle for your viewing pleasure and puzzlement.  What remains from this creative experiment is like cosmic fragments from the unleashing of universal randomness, constellated bodies arriving here from deep space.   Those that didn't make it burned up in the earthly atmosphere of the artist's censoring process.  A few shapes comically suggesting recognizable imagery are thereby granted lasting life, together with unidentifiable mutations of new form and its deformed, x-rayed skeletons, dressed in ill-fitting way-out clothes.
     Now to turn the buried-chaos metaphor on its head.   "Darkness was upon the face of the deep." (-Genesis) "It caught on in a flash." (-Monster Mash")  It may be that the curious, unprecedented forms standing forth in Plagens' paintings are those which managed to wrestle their way out of the void,  the nothingness of flat gray or black, the dark blanket of time and outer space, the annihilation of the integrity of all matter. And if that were so, shouldn't we celebrate their determined presence as a strange, haunting, yet very lively success-indeed, as "a graveyard smash"?