Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun,
September 21, 2006


James Cohan

Feigen Contemporary


Alison Elizabeth Taylor Swimming Pool 2006
wood inlay, polymer, 70 X 48 inches
Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

Among the highminded modernists who defined what are still the underlying values of the artworld, illustration and narrative were such taboos that in the postmodern 1980s their deployment had deliberately subversive intent.  Twenty years later you’d think the novelty would have worn off, and yet even in the work of recently emerged artists storytelling, inherited iconography, and a nostalgic mix of modes of representation can imbue art with a sense of outsiderness.  However skillful and accomplished in pictorial language, work has the taint of amateurism if narrative and symbolism seem to arise from personal necessity.

This comes across in current solo shows by two remarkable women, Elizabeth Huey’s second at Feigen Contemporary, and Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s debut at James Cohan.  These artists occupy a similar emotional terrain in the way their images combine adolescent angst and a fractured sense of the bucolic.  Another connection between them is the uneasy mix of control and vulnerability in their handling of their respective mediums.

Ms. Taylor, fresh out of Columbia’s graduate program, is best known for her ingenious creations in marquetry: She has seven works in wood inlay along with a painting on wood and four large drawings in graphite filling Mr. Cohan’s spacious galleries.  Marquetry has a mixed history that is well-suited to her task.  A princely luxury in medieval and renaissance times, it is, by now, more likely to be found in lower middle class homes of the kind inhabited by Ms. Taylor’s protagonists. 

Her imagery deals with small-town teenage antics—nothing majorly criminal, but scenes, nonetheless, imbued with distraction, alienation, and imaginative poverty. Couples lounge nonchalently, or plot mischief, in dreary, even poluted landscapes or tacky interiors.  “Jumbo’s” (all 2006) shows a couple of young women in a bar, one, miniskirted and seated at a banquet, does something furtive under the table while her friend, in tight red jeans and bare midriff, dances, semi-stufified in her self-absorption.  There is a reclining figure in a picture within the picture on the wood-paneled wall behind.  Ms. Taylor’s fluency in wood is quite breathtaking: the way the grain echoes stretched denim; different shades denote creases in clothing and body contours, the ability she has in such unwieldy material to explore nuances of facial expression.  And yet, inevitably, the medium retains its inherent awkwardness, thereby conveying a tension that finds its emotional equivalence in the subject matter.

Awkwardness is of the essence in “Swimming Pool,” suburban adolescent torture scene that recalls early Eric Fischl.  A frowning boy clutching a skateboard converses uneasily with a voluptuous, bikinied young woman seen from the rear, both of them under the indignant gaze of a reclining, martini-sipping older woman on a deckchair.  The viewer can construct any number of scenarios from this louche scenario, with its low-octane eroticism.  It has the transitional quality of a cinema still, or comic book frame: there is a mystery that with disolve rapidly with the supply of a caption.

The marquetry masterpiece here is “Flamingo,” an action-packed, but still uncodable scene in which a young woman in boots and a frilly skirt clambers on top of an automobile while an anxious girl pleads with her to come down.  A young man with his back to us seems more concerned with the pleader than the climber, while inside a nearby house another man, in seventeenth-century garb, spies on the scene.  Cinematically this feels like David Lynch territory.  You get the drama immediately, but the tension lingers and deepens as you interpret the work’s rich formal details and emotional subplots.

Ms. Taylor, anxious perhaps at being pigeonholed the wood woman, includes a painting and drawings on quirky themes of people dressed in stoneage garb doing odd things in forests.  But here the awkwardness of handling seems merely the result of limited skill, and the wacky iconography, indebted to artists like Matthew Barney and Marcel Dzama, is contrived.

Elizabeth Huey The Superintendent 2006
acrylic and oil on wood panel, 72 x 96 inches
Courtesy Feigen Contemporary

Ms. Huey’s handling of paint has the rich ambiguity, the kind of oxymoronically fluent awkwardness of Mr. Taylor’s marquetry.  The variety of touch in her work signifies awareness of historical precedents, but by the same token prevents seamless pictorial unity.  It is almost as if she is patching together different kinds of painterliness just as she is bringing together disparate figures, scales and scenarios.  But she doesn’t play language games like Sigmar Polke or David Salle through an abrasive collision of techniques.  There is more the naivite of an outsider artist (Henry Darger looms large as an exemplar) working through patchwork to achieve a personally convincing whole.

Such fracturing suits her subject matter, which is nineteenth-century psychiatry.  The artist’s fascination with the reforms and experiments of Thomas Story Kirkbridge and his ally Dorothea Dix has led her to study many of the state hospitals they initiated in the belief that the mentally ill deserved humane treatment in therepeutically idyllic architectural settings.  Ms. Huey’s involvement with this subject is apparently informed by personal history of treatment at the hands of the controversial Straight, Inc. drug rehabilitiation program in her youth.

“The Superintendent” (2006), a six by eight foot painted panel, places various isolated figures in period costume in a landscape of grandly ominious institutions.  The figures vary in the degree to which they are obviously lifted from historic illustrations, like the boy constrained on his chair with some kind of box contraption over his head, or attempt relative naturalism, like the romantic couple strolling on the grass.  The nostalgia and incongruity recalls Max Ernst’s collage novels, but Ms. Huey resists absurdity for its own sake, or as a means to evoke the marvelous; instead, the painting seems anxious to resolve its own nuttiness.  The stronger recall in an ambitious work like “The Burned Over District” is to Renaissance painting, with narrative spread over varying time zones, with liberties of spatial compression geared towards moving the eye towards key players in the drama.

Similarly, there a tension between fulsomeness and feebleness in the way Ms. Huey marshalls her means.  Her rendering of the architecture is precise but flattened like American primitive painting, for instance, and her brooding skies have the slick impasto that recalls mid-twentieth-century salon abstraction, to seem at once expressive and expedient.

Karen Kilimnik Ruffian, an arabian horse at the side street near the bazaar, Marrakesh 2006
water soluble oil color on canvas, 8 x 10 inches
Courtesy 303 Gallery

Karen Kilimnik always teeters on a thin edge between earnestness and irony.  Her attitudes towards history, beauty, and celebrity are about having your cake and eating it: There is enough devotion and craft to denote reverence and involvement with her subject, and at the same time, plenty of deliberate ineptitude to suggest aloofness. 

Her seventh exhibition at 303 is true to form: a plethora of dainty, almost succulent but generally inept paintings arranged in amidst elaborate installations that are too half-hearted to quite pull off.  There is, for instance, a “debair general’s tent” with period fixtures that are obviously low budget, shop bought repros that could likely adorn a contemporary middle class home.  You sense that she could have bought or borrowed better, but that she is too clever and theoretical to want to.

Similarly, the paintings reference Delacroix, Gericault and others in Napoleonic sea battles or colonial hunting scenes.  “Ruffian, an arabian horse at the side street near the bazaar, Marrakesh (2006) is almost nicely painted in a naturalism to suit its period, but with enough evidence of inept to keep the anachronism in line.  (If she was a better painter she would have to compete with the quirky neo-romantic David Fertig—a tougher struggle for a lesser reward.)  Similarly, the touching awkwardness in the fiddly details in “Snow White” (2005) competes with the crass, photographic obviousness of the woman’s contemporary supermodel face.  But there isn’t the organic link between alienation and expression to be savored in Ms. Huey and Ms. Taylor to redeem Ms. Kilimnik’s smug antics.

Taylor until September 30 (533 W 26 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 714 9500)

Huey until October 28 (535 W 20 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 929 0500)

Kilimnik until November 4 (525 W 22 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 255 1121)


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