Village VoiceJanuary 29, 1979


Cheap Thrills and a Little Thought


by Ben Lifson (excerpt)


David Haxton's new work at Sonnabend Gallery (420 West Broadway, through January 28) makes you slow down just to puzzle out what he's done. Like Rodin and Dater, Haxton works inside and fabricates situations he then photographs. His richly colored, glowing diptychs are permutations of a basic set-up: layers of colored backdrop paper hanging from the ceiling, and long fluorescent light fixtures standing on end. Sometimes the fixtures are behind the paper, sometimes in front, sometimes between one layer and another. Sometimes you see one layer of paper through rectangular panels cut in the front sheet, etc; sometimes only a dull yellow glowing through the top layer of green tells you there's a second sheet, and what its color is. Then, within, each diptych, Haxton alters the light. In Panel I the fluorescent lights are off and the room lights on; in Panel 2, the reverse. Or, in Panel 1 the lights behind the paper are on, the lights in front the paper off; Panel 2 reverses the situation And so on. The changes that occur are abrupt and sometimes so unexpected-- a layer of green paper becomes magenta, for example they intrigue you to look to see exactly what, operations were involved, made those flaps and curls of white paper suddenly look like dark, solid cylinders and cones. The pictures are often striking, handsome, pleasing, even beautiful.

The pictures also slow you down, because they seem to stem from Haxton's thought, from a mind well-stocked with current notions about system-art, process art, the arbitrary. Haxton even demonstrates the idea that photography's unique aesthetic is connected to its ability to bear traces of events in the actual world. His pictures, are by implication traces of his behavior in the studio.

When you pause to ask about the urgency of all this about what drives Haxton to such painstaking efforts, such laborious investigation of transformation, you draw a blank. least I do. For I think of Samuel Becket Molloy, for example, who wants- to suck 16 stones in exactly the same sequence every time, but who only has four pockets, an know then that the logical problem of systems and permutations can be the object passionate, frenzied, desperate inquiry. Haxton's work doesn't disclose an attitude ward the arbitrariness or instability of world he creates. Although his metaphoses are novel and his forms inventive, his work lacks-- or I can't detect-a consist vocabulary of meaning. That may come; right now his pictures look like ornaments and embellishments around an empty center that's waiting for theme or metaphor to come and sit down in it.