Despite what critics may tell you, it's not necessary to understand a work of art in order to like it. Especially when it comes to abstract painting. This is because Abstraction, which artist Raymond Saunders excels at, is fundamentally rooted in human language. As we know language can be verbal, non-verbal, gestural, purely visual or any combination of what we can detect with our senses.
It is also true that good art might not make sense right away. Similarly good art may even grow in profundity or change what it means as it is being contemplated. Good art is a trickster, reemerging in your life like a love song triggered by feelings you might not even know you had.
At the Stephen Wirtz Gallery, I observed a solitary young woman standing pensively before one of Raymond Saunders's abstract and quite enormous, mostly black paintings. As I walked around the place she remained there staring at it trying to decipher the little chalk marks and permanently glued-down collage elements. While I was going around the room, she simply stood in place, becoming a collage element herself.
It caused me to consider how the paintings in this show are different from those made by other abstract painters and then I realized that in some respects Raymond Saunders is a poet. The woman standing at one of his works lingered as if she were reading a poem over and over to take in all of its meaning.
Saunders's cryptic, scrawled writing, his references to other notable African Americans, the vast, open blank areas on his surfaces, the emptiness they convey, his collages -- all relate to literature or language. Sometimes they refer to painting, sometimes not. But whatever it is they refer to, it is clear that his many motifs, like half-drawn chalk figures, glued-down bits of paper, attached objects, etc, are not randomly placed. Each bit can be traced back to some kind of source -- a memory, a moment of experience, a place, a person. These paintings are as much an autobiography as they are anything else.
Many works in this show are set on the floor, not hung on the wall, so they can be read as both paintings and sculptures simultaneously. This is as much a poetic gesture as it is a conceptual one, a silent statement of intent that is as fun to try figuring out as the obscured references in the paintings themselves. It might take a while to decode Raymond Saunders's work, but you'll be glad you took the time.
Raymond Saunders's Pittsburgh is at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery through December 22, 2007.