Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          

      A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun,
November 2, 2006 under the title
"When Bad Art Goes Good"


David Zwirner/Zwirner & Wirth

James Graham and Sons

Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Lisa Yuskavage Nana 2005
oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches
Courtesy Zwirner and Wirth

What happens when a “bad” painter gets better?  Is “better” better or worse? 

Lovers and haters of Lisa Yuskavage alike ought to be confounded with her new body of work, seen uptown and downtown at Zwirner & Wirth and David Zwirner galleries.  To those for whom the golden girl of Bad painting can force no extremity of tackiness and distortion too far, her images of sisterly lesbian tenderness must seem like a capitulation to (relatively) safe taste.  Whereas for former detractors like myself, long dismissive of, and repulsed by, the sheer ugliness and ineptitude of her work, a newfound poignancy and genuine painterly delectation are giving pause for thought.

Don’t get me wrong—these are still slick, silly pictures fusing the aesthetics of Hallmark Cards and the knowing rhetoric of the graduate school seminar.  Ms. Yuskavage rose to meteoric artworld attention fresh from Yale where her classmate (if not soulmate) was John Currin.  Both artists exploit caricature to the hilt, debasing the body, usually female, to grotesque, mannerist extremes.  Ms. Yuskavage specialized in abject exaggerations of breasts and buttocks.  They would be placed within sickly-colored artificial spaces that seemed like a cross between Japanese animé and a Francis Bacon interior.

Routinely, critics would castigate her content but concede to her “old masterly” technique.  This was infuriating on two counts.  Firstly, her technique was really nothing special.  It derived from mid-twentieth century How To manuals, it was full of hackneyed short cuts and splashy effects.  Secondly, it promoted the idea that touch and vision are separate, self-contained entities—you have an idea, you execute it.  Whereas the whole glory of old master painting, even while it is in constant dialogue with others within the tradition, is the inventive subversion of received means to get across new visions and sensations.

Reviewing her last New York show in these pages three years ago I wrote that, as far as her much vaunted technique was concerned, “all she boasts is the kind of nerdish facility high school students admire among their peers.”  I wouldn’t say of this new work, as I did then, that “the technique if flimsy, the imagery boring.” Whether I had a blind spot then or she has exponentially improved is academic.

For sure, she still loves saccherine color, squidgy paint, silken fluency, erotic lighting, and disengated flourishes of the brush. And it isn’t just that she has improved in her delivery of these tricks.  Some mockery and absurdity are still there, but their focus has shifted from the women in the pictures to the viewer, and the maker.

There are still plenty of fat women, but there is no longer the cruel humor of the saucy postcard; instead, pregnant women are juxtaposed with effulgent fruit, in “Nana” (2004), for instance. The women are still prone to “white trash” turned up noses and spaced out facial expressions, but in new narratives of amorous interaction and frolic there are intimations of genuine inner thought, of two independent people in a relationship. 

Toning down her misogyny is not just a moral achievement but a painterly one, too. Hitherto, painterliness was a kind of bonus, or consolation prize, added to an already agreed upon pictorial image.  But now, the way paint goes down feels at one with the image.  Tenderness, absorption, and feelings of ambiguity are shared by the vulnerable young women in the paintings and the invested artist bringing it to life.

But if “Nana” is supposed to recall the heroine of Zola’s novel we will remember her as “the flea in the palace” and wonder again about Ms. Yuskavage’s relationship to the old masters.

David Fertig Jean-Baptiste de Marbot 2006
oil on masonite, 48 x 34-1/2 inches
Courtesy James Graham & Sons, Inc.

While Ms. Yuskavage still has at least one foot firmly planted in the camp camp (deliberate kitsch, anachronism at the service of a conceptualist debunking of fine art) then David Fertig is a painter of unassailable earnestness.  He is an genuine “fogey” in subject and style alike.  He paints Napoleonic battlescenes and military personalities with fastidious historic exactitude as far as uniforms, regalia and fusillage are concerned. His shows attract readers of Patrick O’Brien and C.S. Forester who aren’t necessarily art afficianados—it was heartening on a visit to the gallery to watch two young boys appreciatively pointing out military minutiae out to their dad one Saturday afternoon.

Up to now, the great artistic virtue of Mr. Fertig’s work has been the period authenticity of his painterliness.  Rather like historic revivalists of Baroque music, playing on period instruments and researching historic techniques, Mr. Fertig broached the romance of the Napoleonic wars a touch to recall Delacroix, Gericault, or Turner.  He always worked small, and that continues to give images in this show like “The Boat frm the Pickle” (2006) or the equestrian portrait of a general riding on a beach in “1793” (2006) an awkward urgency, a sense of dash appropriate to handsome men caught in conflict.  Painterly smudge gives images like “Frolic and the Wasp” (2006), a sea battle, or “Waterloo” (2006) some sense of the fog of war.  You can almost hear the artist exclaiming battle noises as you see the brushstrokes hit the canvas.

The problem in this show is that, in a bid to increase his scale, Mr. Fertig has adoped some anachronistically twentieth-century techniques—the four foot hight portrait, “Jean-Baptiste de Marbot” (2006) has lots of mechanical palette knife scraping that recalls salon abstraction of the 1950s.  It is rather like hearing a movement conducted by Herbert von Karajan when you were enjoying a symphony played by Nicolas Harnoncourt.  You are dying to turn down the volume—or fast forward.

Enoc Pérez Seagram Building, New York 2006
oil on canvas, 106 by 86 inches
Copyright Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Enoc Pérez is another painter who has moved “up” in various ways, with happier results. 

The Puerto Rican born painter, who recently joined Mitchell-Innes & Nash after showing at the cutting edge Elizabeth Dee, has traded small paintings of Deco colonial hotels in wistful decay in a style that recalled Sickert and Luc Tuymans to monumental “portraits” of signature modernist buildings in New York City. 

His show is a pantheon of heroic postwar skyscrapers: Lever House, the Seagram Building, Met Life, the UN, the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport.  These are generally over eight foot high, and show the buildings in situ though depopulated.  They look to be based on architectural photographs of the period of their completion.

What looks like carefully modulated, generally dry brushstokes with passages of artful smudge and drip turns out, in fact, to be the result of an exacting process of transfer application—paint was applied to papers that are rubbed to the canvas, thus eliminating direct brushstroke.  The painstaking accuracy of this technique, together with the sumptuous scale of the works, invest them with grandeur.  But this is mitigated by a subdued palette, loving detail, and tender restraint that imbue the works with a melancholy familiar from his earlier, Carribean images.  This sense of fragility is the more earie when applied to a metropolis at its imperial peak.

Yuskavage until November 18 (525 West 19 Street, bewteen 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 727 2070; 32 East 69 Street, between Park and Madison, 212 517 8677)

Fertig until November 11 (1014 Madison Ave, between 78 and 79 Streets, 212.535.5767)

Pérez until November 25 (534 West 26 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues)

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