Jimmy Raskin’s lush work may capitalize on a liberal use of glitter and eye-popping colors, but it was a struggle to make sense of the conceptual underpinnings of his recent exhibition. One gathered from the single-spaced, three-page-long press release that the sculptures, collages and one impressive installation on view were loosely based on passages from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Raskin interprets Nietzsche’s fallen tightrope walker, described in the book’s cryptic prologue, as a metaphor for the poet, and consequently for his own efforts.
More than Nietzsche, the poet Arthur Rimbaud was in immediate evidence in Raskin’s show—specifically, Rimbaud’s short poem “Vowels,” which opens by assigning a color to each vowel (“A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue”). Raskin assembled collages from acetate printed with overlapping circles in these colors, adding a few of his own as paint splotches, in observance of an obscure code. The sculpture A, black, buzz around (2010) is a literal take on Rimbaud’s lines, “A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies/ which buzz around cruel smells.” Correspondingly, a black velvet jacket hangs on a dress dummy, embellished with stars, fake flies and rhinestones, and with an excrement-like smear on one shoulder.
While this piece is beautifully realized and clear in meaning, elsewhere Raskin’s iconography is more perplexing. At first glance, The Five Lectures (2008) appears to be a model of a sculpture park set on a metal table. But closer investigation reveals that the five forms within it are lecterns, which, since they are either spherical or collapsing, or distorted in some other fashion, are absurdly nonfunctional. According to the gallery literature, the useless lectern represents the poet’s inability to successfully convey his ideas. It is one of several recurring motifs in Raskin’s work. Another is “Pinn,” a cartoonish character whose name simultaneously refers to the words pinnacle, piñata and Pinocchio. Pinn is prominently featured in the installation Last Call (2010), which includes a vertiginously angled table and two stools with texts inscribed in their seats; one reads, “God Does Not Play Dice,” and the other, “Affirm the Dice Throw.” Pinn, in the form of a long-nosed piñata, is wall-mounted above this tableau, apparently witness to an ongoing match between control and chaos.
A nearby piece composed of words printed on acetate and then assembled, ransom note-style, on a horizontal white background sprinkled with glitter, reads, “I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins.” (The line is also taken from Rimbaud.) No doubt some will want to hold Raskin to this promise of revelation. Yet mystifying as his endeavor may seem, he intrigues rather than frustrates, partly because his work is so visually seductive, and partly because its language and imagery foil interpretation in the manner of the best poetry. Like the poet who ignores rules of grammar and plays with form, Raskin can confound rather than elucidate, but he discovers new possibilities for art in the process.
Photo: Jimmy Raskin: A, black, buzz around, 2010, velvet, wood and mixed mediums, 60 by 24 by 111⁄4 inches; at Miguel Abreu.