He Didn't Blink 

Ted Faiers: an artist for our times.

Ted Faiers' 15 paintings currently on display at Power House, in the retrospective "Pattern Recognition," pack a lot in. Bursting with color, irony, and insight, these works chronicle the turmoil in America during the 1960s and '70s and reveal the worst and best in humanity.

The exhibition's smallest painting, the 1954 Portrait of a Man, is reminiscent of the "Indian Space Painting" approach championed by Faiers' teacher and mentor Will Barnet at the Art Students League in New York City. Barnet challenged his students to develop a new American painting based on Native American motifs. Faiers took his mentor's advice to develop a distinctive style, but instead of continuing to paint tightly patterned, earth-toned abstractions, his art became increasingly figurative, colorful, and charged with satire as sharp as his hard-edged, bold designs.

Three large works created in 1968 -- The Candidate, Holy Terror, and Homage to the Anonymous -- are counterpoints of the chicanery and courage of the '60s. The wide-open mouth of The Candidate roars out sound bites that whip like lassos around his head. This candidate has so completely wrapped his rhetoric in patriotism his tongue has become blue and emblazoned with stars, and his whole body, including his nose hairs, are the colors of the flag.

Holy Terror contains more unsettling visions of humankind. In quick succession, the demeanor of a television evangelist shape-shifts from greedy to self-righteous to pious to smug.

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In a poignant tribute to courage, Homage to the Anonymous, the red stripes of the American flag are heavy beams carried on the shoulders of a series of black men with featureless, impenetrable faces. Row after row of anonymous men bearing a heavy load creates a sense of their endless toil and determination to go on. The work also brings to mind the African Americans who challenged a system that claimed it gave them freedom but relegated many of its citizens to lives filled with menial or onerous labor.

The Delegate's Wife, from 1956, is a very different portrait of humanity -- one of power and privilege. What looks like a pontiff's hat or an exaggerated crown tops a blue body with rounded breasts, stomach, and thighs that is slumped comfortably in a throne-like chair. The woman's right hand and its perfectly manicured long red fingernails curve languidly on the arm of her throne. The jagged yellows and the larger passages of pastels (light greens, pinks, and blues) gently arcing around her body suggest moments of high-key energy in a life filled with leisure.

By the end of the 1960s, flat surfaces could no longer contain the energy generated by rapidly changing racial/political/social attitudes, and Faiers began stretching canvases over low-relief wooden carvings. A good example of this is Masquerade (1971). In what could be a 3-D poster for the sexual revolution, a Mardi Gras reveler wears a headdress that spreads out like the wings of a monarch butterfly. Flowing bands of pinks, violets, and blues radiate from the woman's shoulders. She nurses a bourbon over ice, and fine black leather sharply defines her breasts, which point directly at the viewer. Her face is painted rust and beige to match the coloration of a monarch, but her eyes are uncovered, wide, unblinking. This butterfly, emboldened by Carnival and changing sexual mores, emerges from her cocoon sprouting wings and a wide-open libido.

Pattern recognition: Faiers was good at that. He filled his paintings not only with bold designs but with archetypes and the broad stripes of history. Like the figure in Masquerade, Faiers looked right at us and didn't blink. How refreshing. How we could use his humor and insight right now.

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