Spotlight Reviews

Michael Hafftka, Igor and Romulus, oil on canvas, 78 x 62", 1994.


Housatonic Museum of Art/Bridgeport

As a retrospective of his large oil paintings at the Housatonic Museum of Art vividly demonstrates, Michael Hafftka doesn't shy away from the dark side of the human condition; he embraces his Stygian visions with an intensity bordering on gusto.
   This isn't to say that Hafftka is a cynic who happily depicts the human bone yard with a sarcastic 'I-told-you-so' glee. He transfers personal experiences and the universal pain of our species to his canvases with the compassion of a saint and the technical prowess of an Old Master.
   The velvety blackness of Hafftka's backgrounds might bring to mind the richly limned worlds of the Flemish masters, but Hafftka's subjects inhabit realms far removed from the bourgeois environs of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Rather, the grotesque, emaciated, and disembodied creatures in Hafftka's paintings claim a lineage through Francis Bacon by way of Bosch and Goya.

Michael Hafftka, Fly, oil on canvas, 78 x 62", 1995.
    One can also find, without stretching the point too much, references to a catalog of human depredations encompassing centuries of war, the Holocaust, and 9/11. Hafftka did, in fact, witness the World Trade Center disaster from his home in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. His artistic response to the cataclysm couldn't be clearer.
    Hafftka paints in broad, brutal strokes; he slashes at the canvas, wielding his brushes like cudgels dipped in blood and tar. He displays a slightly more refined touch with human figures, but there is little comfort to be derived from that approach. His people seem to lack skin; they float or fly out of the darkness; they appear crucified or dismembered; they shout, point, and stare with imploring eyes; they endure their fates with the stoic acceptance of the terminally damned.
    On the rare occasions when Hafftka lightens his palate, the brighter colors offer little solace to their subjects or to the viewer. In a painting titled Man and Elephant, the eponymous creatures are discernible, but the man is a Frankenstein assemblage of body parts topped by a flayed head. The eye of the pink elephant tucked under the man?s arm is closed, and the rest of the animal's body is invisible or melded with a pink background.
    Similarly, the title avian of Bird struggles to free itself from what looks like a bomb-blasted tree trunk. The creature's head and long neck are all that are visible; a bloody mass of red runs down the 'tree' from what appears to be the base of the bird's neck.
    Hafftka's mournful catalog of suffering and alienation stands as the artist's testimony to the resilience of human beings faced with unthinkable horrors. The horrors don't disappear when one leaves the exhibit, but a conscious viewer can't help but feel a catharsis, however temporary.

Steve Starger