In “Night Shades and Phantoms,” the romance of American capitalism is evoked as a kind of ghost story: a terminal empire of signs and portents. The two eponymous series of paintings, both made in 1991, feature photographs of urban life silk-screened onto sheets of mirrored metal. The “Phantoms” capture the city, teeming, clamorous, and full of visual noise, in X-ray-like flashes. In Boundary, we see laundry strung outside of a South Carolina tenement and people clustered around a DO NOT ENTER sign. Rauschenberg summons a kind of hazy desuetude in Florida Reservoir, with its scorched palms, fire hydrant, and heap of bricks, all filigreed onto aluminum with the delicacy of breath condensing on a mirror.
In Stone Lady Radial, images of pseudo-Grecian columns and statues are superimposed in a dancing palimpsest. The paintings shift and flicker almost holographically as the sunlight hits them, occluding some figures and spotlighting others in a manner reminiscent of that dominant twentieth-century American export: the movies.
Meanwhile, the “Night Shades” excavate melancholia from beneath the bright surface of the screen. They are scratchy, tarnished, minatory. In Pirate Love 2, a skeleton looms on a tarot card amid inky blotches and clipped corporate logos. Purr is a bus ride through Hades: washes of charcoal-black, a cat like an ancient Egyptian totem, the destination Personal signposting a journey into the confessional unconscious. Portal summons another underworld, with skyscrapers and ships’ masts emerging from a fog of foreboding. Here, Rauschenberg presents the shadow of the American dream, all glittering images and dark reflections.