In this seven-foot-square painting, we are confronted with the wide-set eyes and gaping mouth of a lizard. The effect is startling. At this scale, we might as well find ourselves in front of a menacing dinosaur. As it is, watch out for its tongue that may dart out at you. We are thrown back and forth between a delight taken in a small reptile and disturbing thoughts of being someone's next meal.
Raffael used a projected photographic slide of his subject to make this painting. His source allowed him to capture the minute details of the lizard's brown and blue iridescent skin, its huge eyes with their vertical slits, and the moist tongue resting in its mouth. But the artist doesn't make an exact copy of the photograph. First, he could not possibly do something that simple because he is working in oil paint, not with photosensitive emulsion. Equally important, however, is the fact that Raffael elaborated on the original image by making adjustments in color, light, and form. The background is obviously a painted backdrop of the artist's making.
While pondering a painting that looks like a photograph, Raffael gives us another "What is it?" riddle. What exactly confronts us? A cute lizard or a monster?
Joseph Raffael, Lizard, 1971, oil on canvas, 85 x 85 inches. Collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of Susan R. Abrams. 1987.02 © Joseph Raffael. Courtesy Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.
Joseph Raffael. Photograph courtesy of the artist.