Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

David Raleigh’s Push and Pull Through the Visible and Invisible

David Raleigh, “It Feels Bad,” 2021, acrylic and oil on panel, 15 x 19 in.

Any art is at its best when it’s new, when there are no rules as yet and everything waits to be done, rather than everything having been done already. Whether that is also true of the career of the artist is another matter. David Raleigh, whose Push and Pull is on display at Finch Lane, earned degrees at Snow College and BYU, neither of which seems to have strangled his enthusiasm for drawing on the wrong (or “inartistic”) side of the brain. On the one hand, his technique seems as fresh, naive, and yet convincing as it must have been when he started, and on the other, he’s shown that what makes a drawing or painting work is not some theoretical principle, such as how successfully it foregrounds visual truth over knowledge, but how well it charms the eye and mind that engage it.

There may be no one on the scene today who can make a painting that brings us closer than Raleigh’s “Cat” to being in the living animal’s presence. Not since the cartoonist B. Kliban described a cat as an animal “frequently mistaken for a meatloaf” has so much insight been captured in a single feline image. Raleigh approaches each portrait — his works are all essentially portraits or figures, even when the subject is a bunch of “Bananas” or a hand “Holding Fruit” — with a fresh perspective lacking in preconception, which can be seen when comparing “Cat” to the works on either side. “Dog” has a quilt-like pattern, where “Cat” is striped, and clearly both patterns draw on the artist’s real experience. “Cat Head,” on the other hand, could hardly be more unlike “Cat,” in which the glory goes to the detailed and multi-hued body, while all the appendages, including the head, are relatively blank. “Cat Head,” on the other hand, articulates the structure and loads it with expression.

David Raleigh, “Cat,” 2021, oil on panel, 16 x 20 in.

Whether it was the Finch Lane staff or the artist himself, whoever chose to begin Push and Pull with “Holding Pencil” got it exactly right. There is no more foundational moment in art than when the artist takes a mark-making tool in hand. Here Raleigh officially begins his New History of Art. At a true beginning, the past feels trivial; it’s all about the future. Raleigh has indicated that even as he paints to capture his subject at its peak, full of potential, he is aware that its possibilities must inevitably include decay and dissolution. So he uses brilliant colors and close perspectives, but also qualities of composition and line to suggest how, even as something is becoming itself, it is already in decline.

David Raleigh, “Homo Habilis,” 2021, oil on paper, 8 x 10 in.

Moving further down the line, the next reference to tool use makes a more elaborate point. The species name, “Homo Habilis,” which is Latin for “handy man,” refers to a set of fossil bones that may have belonged to a tiny, extinct pre-human that remains controversial among anthropologists. But Raleigh’s “handy man” is paradoxically a far later model, bulky and muscular, the paradox of his presence secured by his tool, a twentieth-century carpenter’s claw hammer. Even odder, his small, pink head is backed up by a much larger, flesh-colored visage. The modern man’s large head lurks behind and peeks around the hominid’s feeble skull case, possibly foretelling the great brain to come a few million years down the road.

Raleigh often speaks of the brain, remarkable in his estimation, which he identifies as “capable of producing endless amounts of worry and fear but also of generating invention, expression, and connection.” Such contrasts are also part of art, which may explain its power to capture the texture of life: painting presents challenges like those the brain creates for itself, “but is also capable of communicating powerful visual information. It is this duality that keeps me interested in painting,” he writes.

It’s risky to ascribe one artist’s work to the influence of another, but “Word Mountains,” a set of five cone-shaped objects, their surfaces covered with commonplace words, recalls the wonderful baguette-shaped mountain forms of Fidalis Buehler, a professor at BYU whom Raleigh surely encountered during his studies there. What makes this a useful comparison is the very real difference between them. Buehler’s mountains are many things, but one thing they are is drawn from nature. For Raleigh, however, like for those who climb them, mountains are measures of achievement. His rock faces are divided into linguistic categories, which are what distinguishes the human brain from all the others with which it shares the planet. Anyone who spends time with animals will realize, on some level, that they don’t draw analogies. Because they lack words to label categories, like “cat” and “dog,” they rely on instinct more than experience. Raleigh’s categories, including “stunning,” “sap,” and “vertebrae,” are accomplishments, analogies the brain has constructed, filled, and uses to navigate the world.

David Raleigh, “Word Mountains,” 2022, oil on canvas, 54 x 40 in.

By this point, it may seem that Raleigh pays more attention to what he knows about things than to what they look like. He’s aware of the distinction, and, while he admits to coming at art from a less conventional perspective, he disputes any suggestion that he is disinterested in the visual world — source, after all, of so many of our most important insights. “My art is an accounting of the visible world as much as it is an accounting of the invisible world,” he insists. “My work is influenced by emotions, relationships and human nature.”


David Raleigh: Push and Pull, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 23

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