A lure. A hook. Bait and switch. Each is a method of landing something: a fish, a person, a sucker. And the results of each are distinctly unpleasant. There is also something distinctly unpleasant about looking at the pictures of Michael Abraham, though that is also one of their strengths. Abraham seems to do everything he can to alienate the viewer through his use of jellybean color and some cloyingly drawn forms. But why? Why work so hard to dare the viewer to like his work? After many years of looking, I think I have just figured out why.
In the fineness of their rendering, Abraham's paintings can be reminiscent of the Renaissance Masters from Italy and Northern Europe. Even more so, they share with those earlier paintings the distinctive quality that every one of their rich details is chosen and placed with deliberation, and convey a similar heavy redolence of purposeful meaning. Nothing seems as simple as it seems, and nothing can be taken for granted. This is hardly less true than for any other painting; even the most action oriented abstraction conveys some purposeful design, but with Abraham the intent to load every aspect of the painting, from image, to form, to color with meaning is overwhelming.
What Abraham's paintings don't share with the earlier Masters, and this is obvious right off the bat, is any illusion of the ordinary world. Proportion and perspective are frequently skewed, which makes the characters and scenarios whimsical and caricatured, like something one might associate with parables and fairy tales, and with the same intimations of a moralizing intention.
They also don’t share with earlier painting epochs the certainty that any making sense of them is possible. The paintings look as if they desperately desire to communicate, and are met by our desperate desire to understand, but the narrative pieces are so jumbled by the relativity of interpretation that it creates a frustration that is thoroughly contemporary, and makes them ideal metaphors for modern life. The scenes take place in an all illuminating light (traditionally the light of knowledge and truth), but the darkness of the content, built up detail by disquieting detail, is best described as bucolic dystopia or psychotic realism. The color wants to convince me of a happy ending, but the narrative never will. The known is forever contradicting the seen.
Though looking nothing like the work of George Grosz, there is something of the willful bitterness and ugliness of it, but Abraham sugarcoats his so we can “stay positive,” “have a nice day,” and “not judge.”
The lure Abraham uses to deliver his message (decipherable or not) is to indulge our habitual construction of meaning and relations from any given set of circumstances, objects and characters. This narrative push is forced so far forward that it would be easy for the paint to recede in importance in holding one's attention. The dilemma is of a conflicted preacher torn between "the word," and delivering the performance of "the word," combined with the desire that the artifice of the performance be maintained. Does Abraham want to preach, or does he want to paint? He wants to do both. Like the Old Masters, Abraham constantly and consistently obeys the Modernist credo that art should dispel illusion and call attention to itself. But wait, how can the Old Masters have been obeying a Modernist credo? The fact is, painters have been calling attention to the artifice of what they do, including the flatness of the support, for much longer than Modernism's relatively short reign. For an interesting discussion of this see Leo Steinberg's essay "Other Criteria.” Through his overall choice of color, areas of color and pattern that thrust forward to emphasize the surface (the checkered tablecloth in "Hook," the flat, brick red between the central figures in "Power Couple"), and contradictory lines of perspective, Abraham contradicts the illusion it looks like he meticulously crafts. By jarringly inserting art, Abraham interrupts the even flow of his narrative and forces the performance of paint to hold itself narrative's equal.