Barbara Rachko is an American artist with a personal and professional trajectory unique in contemporary art. As a Naval officer stationed on active duty at the Pentagon (Rachko is a retired Navy Commander), she made a slow transition to artist through studying drawing. In 1989, she became a full time professional artist doing realistic portraits while beginning to create works inspired by the primordial energies given form and imagery in folk culture. Her breakthrough occurred after suffering an inconceivable tragedy: the loss of her beloved husband in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
Whereas “Domestic Threats” (1991-2007) carried the ominous specter of American insecurity in the fallout of September 11, the breakthrough of a subsequent series of photographs, “Gods and Monsters” (2007), established a blackground as characteristic of the unknown lying ahead. The full circle return of “Black Paintings” (2007-2016) to her earlier medium (pastel on sandpaper uniting the opposites of rough and soft) brings this blackground disclosed by means of photographs into the foreground. The surprise that results goes Pop.
The eerie feminine figures of these works are reminiscent of the twisted dolls of Hans Bellmer. With the single exception of Stasis (2009), they are headless, or otherwise have covered (The Absence, 2012), shadowed (Figment, 2010), or cut-off faces (Incognito, 2014 and Alone Together, 2016), blurred mouths and bodies suspended half in shadow. This visual blockage of verbal expression reflects the artist’s successful passage into the right brain of wordless imagination. Also contributing to the shattering of linear perspective are the aerial (The Ancestors, 2013) and spiraling views (Some Things We Regret, 2009). The cycle is reinforced by the narrative: the dominant grimacing male figure of Alpha (2009) is reborn by way of the red egg of alchemical rebirth offered in Effigy (2009) to the left/right brain balance of Blind Faith (2014) transmitted via a half-covered face suspended above a scepter, symbol of male domination.
These dissolving feminine archetypal energies seem to float in space amid an array of parts, giving way to the sexless golem figures with their hulking torsos (Spectral, 2014), appendages (Intruder, 2011), coiled Kundalini power (Paranoia, 2009) and anthropomorphism (False Friends, 2011) suggestive of Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent characterized here as White Star (2016). These unclassifiable figures positively lurch into the foreground and seem to be exploding autonomous symbols in their wake. These take geometric forms: the animated disk (So What, 2011), signaling wholeness; an egg-shaped oval (Between, 2009; Couple, 2011; and Poker Face, 2012), representative of birth. Significantly, Offering (2012) extends the fish icon of the receded Pisces Age.
The holistic narrative of heavenly birth crystalizes in Epiphany (2012) where prominent circles are corporatized on the Indians’ cheeks and the oval is indeed an oversized egg, while amorphous floating shapes may be scattering feathers.
Finally, there is the masculine/feminine balance arising from the division of Couple (2011), in which the spotted egg-shaped scepter held by the androgynous skirted female figure morphs into the alchemical red egg symbol incarnated by the matching cheeks of Dichotomy (2015).
The “separate but togetherness” inherent boundaries of this couple are drawn by flesh separated by individual cross patterns as an apotheosis of the Matisse motifs in “Domestic Threats”. Here the design of the three black shapes on the male shirt points to the quantum leap into the realm of the Third realm of the hieros gamos.
Rachko’s artist‘s statement reveals the series was influenced by Jazz. This is the conscious understanding of the filtering of imagery through the ego surrendering to liquid emotion. Yet, what makes “Black Paintings” truly exciting is the subconscious influence arising from Rachko’s early love of silent film, specifically The Golem.
GOLEM enters the art world dialectic via a 2016 exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin just as the “Black Paintings” series was concluded with Alone Together as the Third space birthing the fully formed Heideggerian human Being of White Star matched with the Quetzalcoatl Palaver.
Significantly, the circular seven chapter thematic exhibition in Berlin closes with Doppelgänger, bringing the visitor back to the golem guarding the entrance, thereby signifying a leap through the binary (Trio, 2010) into the Third (The Space Between, 2009), via a new paradigm of cyclical time. In Rachko, this multidimensional perspective is reinforced by the changes in scale within a single picture (Big Wow, 2011, and Some Things We Regret, 2009).
The golem arises in an artist’s ouevre as the figure magically animated from inanimate matter rejected by the suspicious ego (Intruder, 2011) preoccupied with identification, classification and control. By means of videos on her website, Rachko reveals her process of disclosing through the imposition of the Real; as her customary Mexican and Guatemalan folk figures take center stage with the release of the former background detail, the tension between opposites (Troublemaker, 2015) is heightened by juxtaposed electrical wave patterns (Spectral, 2014) clashing with energy draining vampires (Big Wow, 2011) determining a mirror projection (Who Can be Sure of Anything, 2008) regarding a hopeful rise (Motley, 2014), dreaded collapse (Fallen, 2011), or worse: Stasis (2009).
Ultimately, the archetypal Shadow (Broken, 2013) emerges from the blackground to take over the foreground; this is brilliantly anthropomorphized as the leering Judasing (2013) heralding the artist’s original creations molded from dark energy/dark matter. The process by which the “known” gives way to the “unknown” reveals how the rational mind surrenders to instinct. It stands to reason that the Judasing embrace of the traditionally cast-off golem requires consciousness of the repressed personal shadow. This process of recognition charges the work of art with the transpersonal power of the collective archetype of the Shadow.
Rachko has achieved this power through her long process of maturation as an artist. Her creations are inspired by the vast collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art that populate her studio and she even invites access to strangers through a “virtual” tour complete with videos. Earlier paintings were entirely filled with these figures as conscious transmissions of the archaic entering into contemporary art. The breakthrough of “Black Paintings”, which she calls her most personal work, is the sacred marriage of opposites. The blackground is a formed/formlessness of the unified “dark energy/dark matter” both framing and rivaling individual figures; now center stage, these anthropomorphic beings give way to golems lurching towards the observer/participant.
What a prospect! Thrust into foreground, the blackness absorbs the projection of the viewers’ unknown inner life and makes them direct participants to the Shadow confrontation. The discovery of one’s unknown inner world carries a powerful energy charge repressed by ego, and yet, once aroused, is capable of bringing a full force of an awakening. The art that makes transparent the passage to this realm is truly a (r)evolution that makes art as populist as it was in the sixties.
In fact, Rachko’s brightly hued golems popping out of the blackground provide a new meaning to Pop Art. The sixties movement into optics of geometry and color was not intended as multi-dimensional penetrations into archetypal reality; in fact, Pop was derived from popular commercial imagery arising as material for artistic expression in rebellion against the shamanic struggles of the American avant-garde. Yet, the bright primary colors were intended to make the eye POP, and we can view this optical awakening as the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
Rachko was born under the sign of Aquarius. Her self-trajectory is revelatory of the human passage through the Shadow lurking behind the sixties dawning of a new age of gender equality. The passage towards the 21st century icon of the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) is reflected in her personal and professional trajectory towards the integration of left/right brain. The artist’s initial attraction to the “dark matter” of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art indicated an opening towards the occult by way of a link to an ancient culture that sacrificed humans so the collective might be blessed with the transcendental energy of the gods.
A new mythical narrative arises through the autonomy of the symbol. Rachko’s symbols begin in relation to anatomy, such as the circle for the eye or mouth (see “Evolution of a Painting: Poker Face” on www.barbararachko.com; surrounded by blackground, they gain their autonomy. Her early realistic replication of images from three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional pastel figurations filling up the entire picture provided the foundation for this breakthrough; her future shift to pioneering a blackground (which propels the pastel drawing into the medium of painting) established a space for interpretation and projection. The transition from positive to negative space of dark energy/dark matter charged the artist and her observer/participants with an energy emanated by dream figures such as the devil (Provocateur, 2015), feathered serpent eying an ant with a human female head (Palaver, 2016) and miniature ballerinas (The Space Between, 2009). Paradoxically, these transmission drives are made real by the primitive sense perception typically dulled in modern life. The juxtaposing of the dual serpentine figures of Stalemate (2013) depicts a yellow ball (miniature sun as icon of the Self) solution to the warring opposites represented by the replicated doubling of foot. Subsequently, Charade (2015) is a stunning interpretation of the transgender Aquarian Sky Goddess (Rachko is a licensed pilot) shocked by the outer projection of her inner phallus.
“Black Paintings” point into a new direction of art mirroring the human passage towards the disclosing of the wholeness contained within dark matter/dark energy. The paradox emanating from the work itself is this: if the instinctual hand gesture had forehand knowledge of the direction of the artist’s surrender, the journey would never have taken place.
If Andres Serrano were a painter, he would do a Barbara Rachko. Indeed, the ascent of an erotic consciousness that Serrano initiated in the hyperrealist medium of photography now extends to canvas; Barbara Rachko newly interprets painting as the subject/object “capturing site” of the 360-degree perspective of the hieros gamos. Along the way, she pilots the golem crest of the quantum wave as it breaks open the Shadow into the collective consciousness at the very moment it is most needed.
Dr. Streitfeld is a freelance critic, regular Huffington Post reviewer and Kulturindustrie theorist. This is an essay for an upcoming exhibition.