Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Martha Mayer Erlebacher

Forum Gallery
745 Fifth Avenue
New York 10151
Tel. 212.355.4547

Martha Mayer Erlebacher Adam and Eve (The Return) 2001 oil on canvas, 62 x 62 inches  Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York
Martha Mayer, Erlebacher Adam and Eve (The Return) 2001 oil on canvas, 62 x 62 inches Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York

If you were raised on Elihu Vedder, then this is the show for you. If not, you might find yourself averting your eyes from figure compositions that ought to have been an embarrassment to paint.

Erlebacher’s gift is for matter-of-fact description, a quality that stands her in good stead as a painter of still lifes. But it is a hindrance to the kind of mythopoesis she strains after in narrative work. Her skills and sympathies are better suited to trompe l’oeil than to story-telling. She serves herself best with the still lifes on view here. The successful figures in this exhibition are those in which a single model is set anonymously on a draped platform, back to the viewer, then lit and handled like any other nature morte. There are passages of real beauty in Erlebacher’s paint. Yet the overall impression is one of silliness and misplaced ambition.

Three Cats at Dusk is a working compass to Erlebacher’s difficulties as a narrative painter. Three air-brushed women–pussies, oh my!–languish on a rock set against the wastes of an unspecified landscape that looks borrowed from Odd Nerdrum’s last show. Skies that never were are done in a ruddy labial rose. One female arches her upper torso heavenward in a gesture that suggests impalement on a dildo. A second is forced into an unnatural crouch to serve compositional needs. Another is laid flat for the same reason. Then there’s the obligatory spread of classical drapery. Rose-red, It flows to the ground from under the haunches of the sweetheart transfixed on . . . whatever. At an asking price of $35,000, it is clearly intended as the exhibition’s show-stopper. So it is.

Add to this The Tarantula Nebula. On offer is a naked–no drape this time–man and woman assuming the missionary position on center stage somewhere at the edge of the planet. Real action is overhead in the Milky Way. Shooting nebulae explode in marvelous colored dots all over the canvas. This is no ordinary f**k, folks; this is galactic fusion. [Fusion II is the title of a neighboring piece.] By now, the equation of fireworks and sex is as haggard as a cinematic train roaring into a tunnel. But these are compositions for an audience without memory. And without a grasp of art that goes deeper than market price. What else could explain all these implausible, listless women languishing in the buff near one shore or another, resembling something beached, washed in with the tide, less lively than drftwood?

The entire shining ensemble of multi-figure compositions evokes the tact and polish of that other tasteful old venue, Playboy. And why not? An approximate formula–part exoticism, part kitsch–worked for Vedder. It still works, albeit with an Viking slant and more tactile surface, for Nerdrum. No reason a woman should not have a go at the old game.

More worrying is Erlebacher’s Adam and Eve (The Return). Once past the fine foreground figure of Adam, bent to the ground in remorse, the painting sinks into the dangers of literalism. A wild-eyed Eve lies supine across a rock slab (the same one supporting Three Cats on the next wall). Here comes another blasted landscape, this one on loan from Vedder’s The Questioner of the Sphinx. Under a pitiless sky, an incongruous trail of long white drapery covers Eve’s crotch, providing a spot of relief from the punitive gloom. A fading glow, visible through a crevice in the ground, suggests Eden as some sort of Middle Earth from which Adam and Eve have been propelled upward and out.

The literalness of the depiction makes comedy of Eve’s loin cloth. [Did she work a loom in Eden? Was she given time to pack up her linen or did the angel hand her a valise?] Worse, it snuffs all life out of the ancient story, one of the few cultural remnants still recognizable by all of us. The Genesis tale is painted in outmoded, fundamentalist terms, as if Eden had longitude and Adam and Eve were historical characters. Erlebacher approaches the myth as though it were a moment in history, tacked to the wall like a moth and just as dead. One more still life.

Biblical mythos is as trustworthy–or no more untrustworthy–for illuminating the ground of our condition as the modern mythologies of Freud and Jung. But expulsion from Eden is no longer creditable as the loss of some idyllic place, all date palms and fair weather. It has relevance to us moderns only if it is greeted from within and retold for our time. Our own Paradise Lost is Western civilization’s ancestral faith in the meaning of man and of history. To be east of Eden is to carry our chosen despair with us. It is a cultural burden, not a material one. Despair flourishes in the rich, rotted undergrowth of plenty as surely as it exists in squalor and wasteland. Adam and Eve’s predicament, as depicted by Erlebacher, could be fixed with a Swiss Army knife and a cell phone.

The empurpled prose of the press release [“Lust, hunger, greed, heat, cold, beauty, horror: all are here. . . .With formidable intellect, amazing skill and tremendous talent, Erlebacher enables a journey to a place where our identities are drawn and defined.”] is less appropriate than an observation once made by Wendell Berry: “The significance–and ultimately the quality–of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.” Erlebacher lacks purchase on the story she inhabits.