In the foreground, Lethem has rendered a sheet of paper displaying a list of terms. (Text and the written word factor prominently in Lethem's career — he avidly reads poetry, and associative terms sometimes wriggle their way into his paintings, like abstract signposts — but never quite so literally as this.) At the top of the paper is written "Table of Contents," and beneath, a short list of things Lethem identifies as his mother's fears. The painting itself is a whorl of colors, with vaguely representational figures orbiting a peach-colored table (punned on triply now) upon which is rendered the thin outline of a female figure. One of the fears listed on the paper is SNAKES, which Lethem recalls his mother impressing the threat of finding in Midwestern watering holes, and which slither on the peach table like a mantlepiece. Another is NIGHT RIDERS, and sure enough, the ghost of the man who killed Raymond Gunn in Maryville, Missouri, in 1931 hovers in the far corner. A third reads UNKNOWN OTHER, and you might think, for an abstract expressionist, that Lethem would have buried this one somewhere, perhaps sublimated into a darkened splotch on the painting's periphery, but in "Table of Contents," the Other takes definitive shape. In fact, it's sharper and larger than the rest of the figures, its arms raised in a sort of mock-spooky pose ("a little like a bogeyman," he says). It seems to be no accident, no product of spontaneous whimsy, that Lethem has placed it prominently, front and center, between himself and the table of the woman and his kaleidoscope of abstracted memories. And up so close, it doesn't appear to be scary at all.
I ask him how he feels about the painting now that it's out of him — whether, for such a piece rooted in personal history, he would have done it any differently. He pauses a moment. "I think it's an important piece," he says. "I'm pretty happy with it," and goes on to another one.
Nicholas Schroeder can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
"TABLE OF CONTENTS" |paintings by Richard Brown Lethem | Through September 10 | at Aucocisco Gallery, 89 Exchange St, Portland | 207.775.2222 | aucocisco.com