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What I would give for a time machine that could transport me back to Venice, Italy, in the summer of 1984. That year, at the Biennale, an exhibition titled Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained: American Visions of the New Decade had been commissioned for the United States Pavilion by the New Museum’s firebrand director, Marcia Tucker. Along with figurative painters such as Charles Garabedian, Roger Brown, Judith Linhares, and the Reverend Howard Finster, it included a young Oakland-based artist named Robert Yarber, whose nocturnal oil painting of a glowing motel pool and a couple falling past a high-rise window (Double Suicide, 1983) launched him into the public eye.
In recent years, Yarber somewhat disappeared from view, although an autumn exhibition at Nicodim endeavored to change that. Return of the Repressed revolved metaphorically and literally around the motif of the fall—a Biblical theme that was also central to Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained—although in most instances it is impossible to discern whether Yarber’s figures are falling or flying. In the earliest painting in this show, Regard and Abandon (1985), a man and a woman (always a man and a woman, here) embrace, midair, hundreds of feet above a city on a bay. He nuzzles her shoulder; she turns her face upwards, serenely, as if savoring the nighttime air. The scene is almost still, as in the blissful instant before the plummet begins. In Error’s Conquest (1986), there is a bit more movement—her skirt billows around her—but the couple might as well be dancing. In each painting, far below, the blue rectangle of an illuminated swimming pool awaits their splashdown.
Yarber makes narrative paintings that are hard to definitively decipher. If they are suffused with Christian iconography—not only man falling but also ascending, along with intimations of airborne seraphim and cherubim—the paintings themselves are defiantly amoral. The broad intimation is that self-abandonment, or letting oneself fall, may be the surest possible route to ecstasy. In relation to the 11 powerfully atmospheric paintings selected for Return of the Repressed, his career-making work, Double Suicide (not included in the show), seems oddly prescriptive—even narrow—in its fatalism.
When Yarber is at his most thrilling, he paints with a cinematic vividness that borders on the hallucinatory. He convincingly transports us to another realm, one that is in some senses realistic and in others utterly fantastical. In his paintings from the 1980s he lays down sharp-edged white outlines of smoothly rounded forms over pitch-black grounds. In the subsequent decade, the forms become sharper, smoother, and more vivid still, as if to compensate for their increasingly outré content. In Séance with False Medium Trumpet Call from the Beyond (1993)—one of the few earth-bound scenes in the exhibition—we see three people around a table, eyes closed in concentration. A fourth man is blindfolded, gagged, and bound with thick rope, a long hunting horn stuffed into his mouth. Is this latter figure a metaphor for the artist, the composition an expression of doubt or remorse for his painterly trickery? If so, that seems like an important message to get straight. I never do, quite. Along with another bombastic, circular canvas from that same year, The Magus of Turin, this is the most narrative work in the show, but also the point at which I begin to lose the thread.
Yarber has been painting in a broadly consistent style for over three decades, and his facility with his medium is readily apparent. Every picture is picked out, in high contrast, by neon-hued highlights against a black ground. At my most ungenerous, I might say that there is a touch of Bob Ross or velvet-painting-kitsch about some of his work; his techniques are effective, though formulaic. At his best, though, Yarber soars with virtuosic, confident brushwork, as in Vista (2018) in which a man gazes out over an orange harbor while a female sprite appears to dance in the air before him. In a couple of the new paintings, Yarber loosens up with more provisional gestures and mists of sprayed acrylic, and, perhaps because of their scale (they are 11 feet wide), they fail to pack the punch of the tighter, earlier work.
What draws me to Yarber’s painting, both new and old, is largely nostalgia; it seems to belong to another time—though a time still fraught with its own set of buzzing anxieties. That is by no means to the work’s detriment; whoever says great art is timeless is full of platitudinous shit. Art can (and maybe even must?) be anchored to the moment of its conception and still telegraph across time. Datedness does not equal obsolescence. Yarber’s work has probably always existed in an elsewhere: the elsewhere of cinema, of science fiction, of fever dreams. Today, we feel more than ever the work’s remoteness from reality, but retreat gladly into its darkness.
Originally published in Carla issue 14