We don’t stay at these places for long. Everything in and about them gets us moving again as quickly as possible. Fast food and fuel. Signs are simple, immediately identifiable. To read one is to not even catch its disappearance in the rear-view mirror. Pennant flags and racing stripes give the action direction. Even the names of these places are in a hurry: Texaco is on the go, and Mobil doesn’t even have time for an “e.” We can remind ourselves that we are not actually at these settings but are instead standing in front of paintings, and, at least in comparison, we acknowledge that paintings are slow. This painter was always slow. That he was able in previous work to bring images of sleek cars to a weirdly blissful halt makes these last canvases even more breathtaking, especially when we realize that the fullness of their slowness has been achieved while remaining true to life.
Peter Cain’s six paintings from 1996 based on photographs he took, and the subsequent drawings he made, of Los Angeles gas stations and convenience stores were for him the beginning of something new rather than the heartbreaking end that they were forced to become, when he died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage in January 1997, at the age of thirty-seven. Emptied of any literal human presence, yet filled with loaded images and shapes that act like psychological “batteries” that power the (painted) space, these works impact our consciousness with a depth equal to the degree of clarity with which they were painted. This, of course, goes against the script of the made-for-TV Story of Los Angeles, in which anonymous gas stations and strip malls zip past the car window. (My assumption, based on my experience as an LA driver for the past eleven years, is that Cain was a passenger in the car from which it appears he took his photographs. They have the kind of focus that is possible only when someone else is filling up the tank or has run into the store.) The extent to which Cain slowed this experience down and made these convenience stores and gas stations singular for both him and us cannot be overstated. Still, we should keep in mind that, as in all his work, these six paintings calmly refuse to tell us everything about where he may well have been headed.
Los Angeles had already played a significant role in Cain’s work, even though he was in all significant ways a quintessential New York painter, born in New Jersey. His second solo exhibition was held in LA, in the fall of 1990, only a year after his debut in New York, adding significant evidence to the strong case that has been building since his death that Cain, from the very beginning of his career, was well ahead of his time. These days, of course, an LA show early in an artist’s exhibition history is a high priority, if not a necessity; fifteen years ago it was far down the list for most emerging New York artists, especially the painters, the best of whom were more focused on doing their work despite the growing assumption in the art world that painting no longer had anything to contribute. (I was there at the time, so I had my fair share of arguments with certain smug individuals absolutely certain about painting’s lack of credibility. Today, some of these people behave as if born again, and I try to just smile and nod.)
The work that Cain showed in that early Los Angeles exhibition featured his car paintings, each of which portray a bizarrely mutated image of a highly desirable object––an automobile––rendered in a no less charged manner. According to curator and critic Bob Nickas, fifty-four of the sixty-one paintings Cain produced in the span of his short career are of cars. (Two of the Los Angeles paintings were not included in Nickas’s count, making the revised total sixty-three.) In Los Angeles, in 1990, of course, it’s likely that most of the reactions to Cain’s car paintings would have focused on the mutations that rendered the vehicle almost unrecognizable (although the titles are a help) as well as undrivable. (The one local review the show received was titled “Defamiliarizing an American Icon.”) For example, Prelude #2 (1990) establishes with lightning speed the signature characteristics of Cain’s emerging work: the painstaking yet seamless morphing (a word I probably wouldn’t have had on the tip of my tongue in 1990—more about this below) of the front and back of a very popular Honda (red, even) that has smoothed away such unnecessary features as doors and windows, not to mention any interior space; the ninety-degree pictorial upending of the entire “creature” as well as the ground that it is either resting on (if you are able to reorient the entire picture in your mind’s eye) or to which it is somehow permanently stuck; and, most important, the uncanny union of material and method in the creation of a painting that is as poised as it is ridiculous, as engineered as it is seemingly self-made. The car paintings stop viewers in their tracks, and they are rightly destined to remain timeless signature images for a painter who clearly believed such things were important. They established the core concerns of his practice, which had everything to do with the longstanding self-critical, even “formal” terms of painting.
Before returning to what still looks at this point like an abrupt shift in both the meaning of and the method behind Cain’s work, I cannot pass over the series of three stunning paintings he made of his boyfriend Sean in the same year as the Los Angeles paintings. All three were shown alongside four of the six LA paintings in 1997 at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, less than a month after the artist’s death. They remain for me—as well as, it seems, for other critics—among the most affectingly self-assured paintings of the nineties. Reviewing the show in the Village Voice, Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “I feel present at the creation of a new high style able intelligently to capture intimate nuances of contemporary Eros on a public scale.” Cain, he continued, “had love to offer, in a word: the prayerful concentrations of a brush directed from the heart. What joy to see it connect with flesh and blood!”1 Beyond the seismic shift in subject matter, what sets the three Sean paintings apart from the car paintings and surprisingly connects them to the Los Angeles paintings is the manner in which they are painted––provoked, I’m sure, in large part by the meaningful, even more sensual change in representing the desirable surface of a living, breathing person. An automobile may be sexy, but Cain’s hand-on capturing of Sean’s presence and even his attitude makes it clear that a car will always be a poor substitute for the real thing. These three paintings are more than strong enough to stand on their own as the sole representatives of warm bodily presence in Cain’s truncated oeuvre, but to me this is a misleading division of Cain’s work, since all his paintings are suffused with an overwhelming human presence. Like Schjeldahl, I never had the honor of meeting Cain, but I’m confident that the connectedness that I see and feel in the Sean paintings in fact carries over into the not-so-unoccupied Los Angeles paintings.
While only three of the six Los Angeles paintings depict gas stations (Mobil, Texaco, and Untitled #4), all of them should be seen as wittily extending the terms of the “full/empty” dialectic that engaged Cain from the beginning of his career. If it is clear that the car paintings participated in this conversation by way of a sly nod to Surrealist painting’s capacity for overloading and complicating meaning (Magritte), it is now also clear in hindsight how extraordinary Cain’s early accomplishments were (along with John Currin, but without that painter’s easy cynicism) at a time in which too many people were convinced that the endgame strategies of painting in the 1980s had canceled out all possibilities for expressive content in the medium. Now that we once again find ourselves in a time in which accessible meaning in painting is not only permitted but expected (and in my opinion we owe emerging painters of the late 1980s like Cain a lot for this), it seems to me that Cain’s Los Angeles paintings were prescient in bringing him closer to what it now seems he was interested in all along: the necessary role of abstraction in the critical perception of our everyday realities.
All six of the Los Angeles paintings share one immediately noticeable feature: the words that would normally appear on the signage have been removed. At first glance we are likely to read this as an act of erasure, and readily comprehend it as a now-classic postmodern strategic nod to the complicated relationship between sign and signifier. However, I am convinced that what Cain is presenting us in these paintings is not a simple deletion (keep in mind that his work predates our user-friendly computer age) but rather a careful “filling in” that has almost nothing to do with the joyless act of elimination and everything to do with plenitude. For example, in Untitled #3, the large red oval in the center of the nondescript building’s façade not only formally fills the largest space in the entire picture but also becomes the weighty central panel of a monochromatic triptych that is completed by the two cut-off red rectangles that flank it. In the process, the entire scene is transformed into something physically greater than the sum of its parts (strangely enough, not unlike Ryman, one of his heroes). Even when these paintings become substantially more puzzle-like, as in Mobil, where all the signs and shapes add up to something like a mini-survey of postwar geometric abstraction, the careful overall manner in which the painting has been made brings everything together in the most quiet of ways.
The visual sense of stillness is reinforced by the fact that the photos on which the paintings are based were most likely shot from the window of a car. Keeping in mind the careful attention that Cain always paid to the framing edge of his canvases, it is in my opinion a necessary condition of these paintings that they seem to be presenting the point of view of someone who is sitting in a vehicle rather than walking around or in front of these spaces. In other words, it’s as if we cannot step into the depicted space of the canvases, and that pictorial “roadblock” is the ultimate source of their stillness. Even the most potentially active parts in some of the paintings––the pennant flags in Glendale Boulevard or the clearly windblown banner on the left side of Untitled #5––are not going anywhere. Yet surprisingly this stillness does not ultimately exclude us, a strange turn of events facilitated to my mind by the engaging ways that Cain painted the components of these pictures. (Consider, for example, the hallucinogenic effect of the foliage in Untitled #4, which is made all the more hypnotic by the “fully” empty yellow sign in the center of the canvas.)
This lack of action is what has helped others, and now me, to turn to the work of Edward Hopper as a historical and psychological precedent for these paintings. While it is true that Cain’s paintings have what Carroll Dunham called “their flat, lonely narratives” that strongly bond them to Hopper’s work—most clearly to his paintings of gas stations like Gas (1940) and Four Lane Road (1956)––what is even more notable to me is the extent to which Hopper effectively grounded his work by often including small yet potent “pieces” of geometry within the overall pictorial structure of his canvases.2 Using the normal occurrences of rectangles, triangles, and circles––in the various forms of window shades or chimneys, signs, or even the crisp moments of sunlight falling across a wall and/or floor––as felicitous occasions to insert distinct shapes of primary color into his paintings, Hopper proves himself to be much more interested in abstraction than we may have been led to believe. (My sense of this was solidified at his retrospective at Tate Modern in 2004, and I was very mindful of my earlier visit to the Barnett Newman retrospective in the same gallery spaces.) During another period in history, this likely would have been considered a contradiction; today, of course, we are more than comfortable with the complexities of the relationship.
Looking at these last paintings of Cain’s almost a decade after they were made, I am again struck by the myriad ways in which they anticipated so much of what is driving the discourse in painting today. In our digital age, in which a significant contingent of younger painters turn to technological tools not only to realize their work, but also, it often seems, to validate it, I think Cain’s paintings offer up a challenge worthy of our full consideration. Recently rereading the catalogue for “Painting Pictures: Painting and Media in the Digital Age,” a large group exhibition of younger painters at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in 2003, I found myself inspired by the following from Frank Reijnders: “Perhaps the greatest challenge of painting today is to draw slowness back out of speed. To elicit silence out of communication, mystery from transparency and darkness from the flood of images.”3 It is an understatement to say that Peter Cain accomplished this, and much more.
1. Peter Schjeldahl, “Hail and Farewell,” The Village Voice, February 25, 1997.
2. Carroll Dunham, “Head Over Wheels,” in Peter Cain: More Courage and Less Oil (New York: Matthew Marks Gallery, 2002).
3. Frank Reijnders, “Painting? A State of Utter Idiocy,” in Painting Pictures: Painting and Media in the Digital Age (Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2003), p. 23.