Thursday, January 29th, 2004

Philip Pearlstein: Recent Paintings at Robert Miller Gallery

through February 7
524 West 26th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-366-4774

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 29, 2004

Philip Pearlstein Model with Old Iron Butcher Sign #2 2003 oil on canvas, 36-1/4 x 48 inches Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Philip Pearlstein, Model with Old Iron Butcher Sign #2 2003 oil on canvas, 36-1/4 x 48 inches Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York

Philip Pearlstein tests limits – his own, his models’, his admirers’. He is not always an artist who is easy to like, but for anyone serious about painting he is impossible to ignore.

The exhibition of 18 of his new canvases at Robert Miller offers a timely contrast in terms of strangeness and skill to the young celebrity mannerist, John Currin, whose Whitney retrospective has inspired such frenzy.

Mr. Currin, a phenomenal crowd-pleaser, is a true successor of Salvador Dali, combining as he does showy displays of “mastery” and a determination to shock, whether through wilful inanity or sheer nastiness, or both,. Mr. Pearlstein cuts deeperinto the ranks of the old masters than Dali, however, forging a direct line to Ingres.

Philip Pearlstein Male and Female Nudes with His Master's Voice Dog and Exercise Ball 2003 oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches
Philip Pearlstein, Male and Female Nudes with His Master's Voice Dog and Exercise Ball 2003 oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches

Because perversity is Mr. Currin’s sine qua non, we quickly tire of it. In Mr. Pearlstein it is pervasive, the byproduct of a truly warped yet intense pictorial intelligence. Where the younger artist delights in slippery, fast, virtuoso painthandling, the older bewilders despite a frankly boring delivery.

True, Mr. Pearlstein impresses skill-lovers with his nutty determination to paint each hair on a man’s chest, each stitch in a quilt, and with such pictorial feats as depicting things as seen through a transparent plastic blimp or reflected at odd angles in mirrors. But he is the kind of painter who is more likely to submit to awkwardness than to triumph with slick solutions. He is as obsessed with looking as Mr. Currin is with looks.

The real perversity of Mr. Pearlstein’s works is that, though he is fundamentally unpainterly, his (literally) incredible images couldn’t exist in any other medium. The camera, for instance, would obscure the discrepancies between two-dimensional rendering and three-dimensional observation. Precisely such weirdness is his true subject. That is why he has to paint.

The connection to Ingres has nothing to do with the French master’s ethereal beauty of surface, for which Mr. Pearlstein’s all-American deadpan is a poor substitute. Rather, it is in the license Ingres’ example gives him to distort in the name of a higher truth – a truth beyond first appearances. Actually, Mr. Pearlstein seems so excited by the problems of seeing and constructing that the actual making is merely a chore: Like that of another latter-day Ingres, Lucian Freud, Mr. Pearlstein’s unlovingly slow execution almost punishes the viewer for intruding upon his scopophilia, his own private obsessive absorption in the act of seeing.

Mr. Pearlstein’s idiom hasn’t essentially altered since the 1960s, when – deliberately provoking avant-garde taboo – he started to paint nudes, from life, in elaborate studio set-ups. He brought a ruthless modernity to a time-honored (and dishonored) academic practice. Unexpressive touch, stylized cropping and foreshortening, and awkward, affectless poses became his instantly recognizable trademarks.

Yet within the tight constraints of this style there has been development. Despite the labor-intensity of his mode, he is prolific; despite the initially alienating uniformity of his production, he is fascinatingly diverse. Once seduced, the eye is delighted and surprised. His paintings have grown wackier from show to show – and better, too.

The current one, for those with eyes to see it, is an apotheosis. His compositions have become notoriously crowded, both with objects and effects, and his art seems to have as much to do with the arrangement of his set-up as with its rendering in paint. It is almost as if he were an installation artist whose “work” could be seen only in paintings, rather than as objects in a gallery. The youngsters Mike Kelley and Vanessa Beecroft would have to collaborate to produce anything as startling in flesh and toys.

Mr. Pearlstein’s models compete for space with a plethora of still-life objects – which is, essentially, what they are, too. He is a compulsive collector of Americana and other artefacts. “Mickey Mouse Puppet Theater, Jumbo Jet and Kiddie Tractor With Two Models” (2002), places two of his familiar models amid the eponymous memorabilia. The game played is the cops-and-robbers that adults never tire of in art: the battle of reality and artifice.

Philip Pearlstein Model with Swan Decoy on Ladder 2002 oil on canvas, 50 x 34 inches
Philip Pearlstein, Model with Swan Decoy on Ladder 2002 oil on canvas, 50 x 34 inches

In this case, the artist reverses the dichotomy of the organic and the mechanical. The depiction of bodies is more stylized, that of things more animated. Mickey’s features, for instance, are fixed in astonishment, while those of the models are resigned. The hairline of the male sitter rhymes with the black-and-white division of Mickey’s face, as the model’s beard does the mouse’s eyebrows. Mr. Pearlstein has poked fun at his own nerdishness by placing the name “goofy” on the Disney puppet theatre so as to preside over his composition.

This is typical of a testing and teasing of meanings in Mr. Pearlstein. An African-American woman, who in his last show was posed with a bird-house model of the White House, is seen in two canvases here with a swan decoy. Such playfully un-PC gestures are worthy of Mr. Currin, or for that matter David Salle or Eric Fischl. Or indeed, of Picabia, the dada provocateur about whom Mr. Pearlstein wrote his MA thesis at the outset of his career.

In the pictorial universe of Mr. Pearlstein’s studio, fluorescent lamps mercilessly democratize surfaces, abetting the anti-painterly rendering of flesh, tin, wood, and fabric as equal reflectors of light and color. The shadows in two relatively sparsely populated canvases from 2003, “Model with Butcher’s Sign” and “Model with Old Iron Butcher Sign #2” is, by Mr. Pearlstein’s standards, voluptuous.

Besides the shadowplay, there is also play between the flatness of rusty cutout metal and the sinewy bulbuousness of smooth flesh in dangerous proximity to it. In each picture, the woman’s legs open to form a “V,” which rhymes invitingly with the arrangement of knife, hook, and saw in the sign. (The artist, who delights in visual and verbal punning alike, might like to know that in East London Cockney rhyming slang the phrase “Butcher’s hook” stands in for “look”).

In these compositions, however, the shadows, a fleeting presence, are the most intense, involved, observed “objects.” They seem to say that seeing is more sexy than skin, that the real erotics of painting has to do with the phenomenology of perception, not the existential facts of naked bodies in time and space. Yet, to prove the point, the presence of the latter is required.