“Will Cotton” at Mary Boone Gallery through October 23 (541 West 24 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 752 2929)
“Ena Swansea: situation” at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert through October 9 (524 West 19th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 807 9494)
“Lois Dodd: Flashings” at Alexandre Gallery through October 2 (Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street at Madison Avenue, 13th Floor, 212-755-2828)
Will Cotton’s latest paintings give new meaning to the term “eye candy.” His four canvas show at Mary Boone continues a photorealist preoccupation with the motif for which he is best known, confectionery, but forcibly fuses it, this time, with what had been a second subject, the erotic female nude.
Mr. Cotton’s candyscapes collide the genres of landscape and still life, constructing spatially ambiguous vistas out of perceptual and digestive excess. Usually there is a gaudy overload of sweet things, whether icecreams, chocolates, familiar mass-produced goodies like Oreo cookies and M&Ms, or toffees and caramels in a molten state, rendered in suitably sickly, saccherinne hues. His modus operandi is to photograph complex constructions of such stuff and render a painted image in a deadpan academic hand.
“Cotton Candy Cloud,” (2004) confines itself, with twisted restraint, to a single treat, cotton candy, unless we semantically join his sexist orgy and classify the voluptuous reclining redhead as a sweet thing, too. The puffing pinkness cannot begs to be read as an eponymous stand-in for the artist himself: its folds have the feel of musculature.
Art historically, the image overtly references Cabanel and Bougereau, the nineteenth-century “pompier” classicists, and in so doing recalls Mr. Cotton’s own education, which was completed at the New York Academy, which promotes “technique” in the beaux-arts sense of the word. Mr. Cotton’s nudes, more Vargas than Velazquez, lag behind his confectionery in sexiness.
The problem with them is that they come with baggage: The more he tries to make them voluptuous, the more they recall a grand tradition of which, by painting with giant quote marks around his own expressivity and curiosity, he can but be a testy footnote. They aren’t at all convincingly drawn from life, but nor is there an interesting sense that they derive from a specific kind of artifice, in the way, for instance, Cecily Brown uses hardcore pornography.
This deprives them of the warped frisson of vitality enjoyed by his cookies and chocs, ambiguously poised as they are between reality and artifice, a readymade pun as they are on the synthetic. On their own, the still-life motifs were intriguing, if not enticing, in a Jeff Koons kind of way. With the addition of his lethargic classicism his ice-cream melts away into silliness on a par with Lisa Yuskavage.
His delivery contrasts with the great modern master of the creamcake and spandex nude, Wayne Thiebaud, whose still startling images of pies and cheerleaders found in such proto-Pop imagery an apt metaphor for painterliness. Mr. Cotton’s images have some initial energy thanks to their kitsch overload of slick rendering, but that turns out to be the pictorial equivalent of a sugar boost. A Thiebaud is good enough to eat, but a Cotton gives you very little, aesthetically, to get your teeth into.
Ena Swansea also treads ground between artifice and reality, though with radically different results to Mr.Cotton’s. Her figuration eschews academic formula, and endures the awkwardness that inevitably arrives in its wake.
Her show is consequently uneven: some canvases are belabored by nerdishly rendered inanimate objects like an automobile or an air conditioner that upset the delicate ratio between transparency and opaqueness. And yet, other images are energized and animated by an equally pronounced but expressively more convincing awkwardness. Despite a couple of turkeys, the best paintings make this exhibition one of singular power and importance.
Like Mr. Cotton, Ms. Swansea had, earlier in her career, achieved a slick, contained, fully resolved still-life style before succumbing to the temptation of human subjects. In her case, ambiguous shadows cast by flora and vegetation produced images of compelling beauty. Her turn to figuration seems less a style gambit than an expressive necessity.
Her shadowplay led to experimentation with elaborate set-ups, in her case utilizing the camera oscura. The new imagery extends the photographic metaphor. One picture, of a child’s head, is entitled “color negative,” (2004): like all the works in the show, it is painted on a ground of graphite, a material of sinister ethereality, at once leaden and other-worldly.
Ms. Swansea can paint with exhilerating facility: “devil on the road,” (2004) an ambiguously poised, goggled and spandex-clad red demon casting his shadow on shimmering, near-molten asphalt is a suitably devilish display of convincing, beguiling and deft painterly sleights of hand.
The real show stopper, though, is a 15 foot long dinner party scene that recalls a Tintoretto last supper in its compressions and foreshortenings. This image, at once timeless and a painting of modern life, offers an appropriately enebriated perspective: the distorted still-life arrangements and stilted figure poses have the eye lurching between ease and alienation, speed and arrest. In its fusion of fluency and awkwardness this rich, complex work recalls Manet at his weirdest.
Short mention must be made of a compact display of tiny oil sketches by Lois Dodd at Alexandre, the septugenarian’s third show at that gallery in two years. Actually, the show, propped on ledges in the gallery’s foyer, warrants close attention-critical and appreciative: it is exquisite fun, and surveys 50 works from as far back as 1990.
These plein air paintings are done on roofer’s flashings, thin, aluminum panels of five by seven inches. As such, they are like postcards from the front line of observational painting. The medium, eccentric and yet practical and effective, is true to this artist’s character: Ms. Dodd is one of the true mavericks of American painting, a quietly audacious realist whose quirky, enigmatic, yet empirical and heartfelt observations of the rural scene make her the supreme “artist’s artist” of the New York school.
These lyrical yet hardnosed sketches capture, in completely unaffected simplicity, such phenomena as floral color contrasts, subtle noctornal lighting effects, movements of water, a shimmering breeze. At this size and speed, the artist’s affinities with her better known contemporary, Alex Katz, and their mutual mentor, Milton Avery, are clear, but so too is her utter individuality.
In scale, slickness, and “attitude” Ms. Dodd could not be further removed from either Mr. Cotton or Ms. Swansea, but she does share with the younger artists an intuitive sense that oddity and credibility can make happy bedfellows.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, September 16, 2004print