Long known as a painter of images, Robert Standish has transformed himself in the past several years into a producer of paintings. That is, he has turned to the physical, even visceral, nature of paint itself to define the character, and certainly the appearance, of his artwork. As a result, the paintings Standish has created – most particularly in the last two years – rely primarily on concrete evidence of material and its manipulation. There is nothing illusory about them.
Or is there? The qualities of the paints Standish employs, and the forms he determines through their employment (in a process that is at once intuitively motivated and deliberately modulated), allow for eccentric and seemingly unstable compositions that brim with articulated surfaces, lustrous highlights, and peculiar crevices. The eye, seduced by the wealth of hue and chroma, sees more in the aggregate than is materially present. For the viewer, each canvas is an adventure in seeing and not seeing, finding and not finding. But, then, it is for Standish as well.
This latest series, given the moniker Anti-Sporadic, combines oil and acrylic paints, the latter substance laid down first and the former last. In fact, the basis for each composition is a pour of acrylic onto the canvas. Standish enhances the resulting impasto with a highly gestural application of palette knives. The resulting topography is then modified with oil-based pigments, applied with brushes, so that the often volcanic-seeming features of the acrylic pour are amplified into patterns and visual structures. This is no mere exercise in decorating high-profile surfaces: Standish intervenes deeply into the acrylic with the oils, coaxing bursts of color and swaths of texture out of the superficial and into the visible.
Standish may seem to leave certain Anti-Sporadic works – smaller ones in particular – free of his “oil intervention.” But that is an illusion right there; his hand has indeed intervened, however invisibly. Standish has “touched up” these weighty monochromatic froths with the same carefully applied enhancement he’s visited upon more extravagantly colored canvases, only here, the goal has been to bring forth shadows rather than rainbows.
Standish had already been working in a non-objective idiom for several years when he developed the techniques that led to the Anti-Sporadic series. As so many painters discover, the pleasures and mysteries of smearing substances on surfaces reveal themselves not only during the process of painting, but afterwards as well – and in many more different and unanticipated ways. Indeed, this is what makes abstract art appealing to its audience as well as to its practitioners. Standish avers that he began thinking abstractly even while painting recognizable images. (Notably, while painting streetlights at night, he became fascinated by the effects of light on the camera he was trying to emulate; from there, he became engaged with the effects of light on the human eye itself.)
The turn toward abstraction was not an abandonment of skill, much less imagination, on Standish’s part. To the contrary, he was now applying his familiarity with the tools and materials of painting to the act of painting itself – an act that, to assert its own valorization, requires the affirmation of artistic personality, specifically of artistic mind. One could argue that abstract painting requires far more mindfulness than does pictorial painting. But the comparison is ultimately empty: painting is painting (pictorial painters exercise precisely that mindfulness when involved in rendering detail, for instance), and Standish insists as much in his Anti-Sporadic paintings. Indeed, they seem to be first and foremost a declaration of the autonomy of painting – painting as object, painting as act, painting as tradition, painting as concept, painting as ritual, painting as thing, and so on.
For the viewer, each Anti-Sporadic painting is its own experience. Of course they share many obvious (and not so obvious) traits; but once they admit their fraternity, they start to push away from one another, not just insisting on their self-sustained independence but also demonstrating it. Standish has generated a body of work in which no component can substitute for any other. Some resemble one another more closely than others, of course, but in all cases the differences – the obvious optical differences – are at least as readily apparent as are the similarities. Standish may have perfected a method of producing a kind of viscous, molten-lava abstraction, but he has seemingly been careful not to apply that method to serial practice. The substances are the same; the hand is the same; the results are markedly, even surprisingly, dissimilar.
Robert Standish is not an abstract expressionist. He is not “expressing” anything. If anything, he is allowing his acrylics and his oils to express themselves (and each other). He is a gestural painter, to be sure, and an abstract one (as we understand the blanket term “abstraction” in the United States, encompassing the non-objective and the nearly so). But, like generations of abstract painters in Southern California, including his own father, Standish is interested not in expression but in exploration. What can be done within a self-limited practice? What can be done with the materials and formats at hand? What can be done within the extant context of artistic practice, and what must be done outside that context? The Anti-Sporadic paintings constitute a realm of experimentation for an accomplished and yet restless artist. Each painting is a new, and arguably unanticipated, experience for him. But they are for us, too. And that’s where these paintings truly succeed: they commute that sense of experimentation, of unpredictability, to those who behold them.