Sanford Kwinter

sk1 Portrait of Sacho and Vanzetti, 141"x129"
Lee Jaffe’s paintings are very big; they are bold and blunt, boarding precariously on the grandiose. Impressive in size, they are even more so for their startling ingenuousness, sentimental eccentricity, and gentle, almost touching rendering of details. Obsessed with historical time, Jaffe parades his artifacts and images—maps, portraits, illustrations lifted from history books, etc.—in billboard like fashion, embedding them within and across an array of strange and funky surfaces. These surfaces also include such things as coyote and muskrat pelts, flypaper, turkey feathers, corrugated iron, and tar, not to mention a vulgarly lavish is play of gold, silver and aluminum leaf. Jaffe is reluctant, however, to manipulate these materials: there is scarcely a patch of paint anywhere on the canvases (sprinkled dry pigment is the more common technique), and his work is in face singularly without transformations. Its assembly is based instead on the mechanics of montage, with matter and images combined in their pure exteriority. ln a sense, each of Jaffe’s paintings functions as an impacted diorama:

no more illusionary or stenographic space, no more dependency on a gaze to complete the work, just a literal presentation of the facts—a host of metonymical paraphernalia collaged on large multipartite canvas structures.Portrait of John Brown and at Turner consists of real gallows (with a working platform, cross brace and noose) and a 10-by—14- foot canvas surface, on which appear the drawn figures of the two abolitionist martyrs superimposed over a Civil War map of the United States. Like nearly all the other 16 works in this show, this piece is intended as a portrait not only of historical figures, but of a historical mechanism—one which, like the gallows here or the electric chair (evoked by strands of wire) in Eclipse Portrait of Jesus and Ethel Rosenberg, permits power to articulate itself directly onto bodies. But the notion of "mechanism" is not exhausted by such depicted furniture:

in each case the works are completed with various diagrams and notations. In the Turner/Brown portrait, there is the expansive Civil War map with campaigns recorded with arrows and important events with date and place tags. The presentation here is straightforward history book style, but with a slight twist: the phenomenon of war is shown to mesh indistinguishably with its local contact points, here the personal lives of two men. The crossbeams which form the work‘s chassis go farther still to literalize this connection, evidencing Emerson‘s prediction that Brown’s execution would "make the gallows glorious like the cross."

Art in America, March 1984 by Sandord Kwinter