“Bendix Harms” at Anton Kern Gallery until December 4 (532 W. 20th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-367-9663)
“Richard Bosman” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery until November 13 (529 W. 20th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-463-9666)
“Carroll Dunham” at Gladstone Gallery until December 4 (515 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh, 212-206-9300
The late work of Philip Guston, so axiomatic to the 1980s, was the harbinger of a new, “Bad” painting. Thanks to an almost insolent expressivity and gauche personalism Guston made a goofy appeal to the primitive, in the forms of graffiti and cartoons, and thereby defined the decade.
Somehow the influence has never gone away: Bad painting was just too much of a good thing. It could be that much of Guston’s importance to succeeding generations of painters had to do with his extreme, urgent expression of a perennial struggle (a kind of romantic-classic opposition) between the formal and the informal, the polite and the brash, felt by every creative painter worth his or her salt.
The winds of Gustonism gust through various Chelsea galleries right now. At Anton Kern, for instance, there is a young German painter named Bendix Harm whose self-portrait even resembles the errant Abstract Expressionist, with sad eyes and Picassoid distended nostrils captured within turned-up lapels. There are shades of Louise Bourgeois and Francesco Clemente in the image, too. The head surmounts a pyramid of cushion-like forms each containing the word “moi” repeated in a child-like scrawl.
Richard Bosman is a natural carrier of the Guston gene: He studied with the master in the 1960s as a pioneer student at the New York Studio School. His other influential teacher there was Alex Katz, who included Mr. Bosman in a group show last summer at Colby College, Me.
Mr. Bosman can compete with Guston – or any artist – in terms of the depths of vulgarity he plumbs. His paintings are like oversized illustrations, shiny and brash. His Americana borders on kitsch, only there’s an energetic ambiguity at play: Equal degrees of earnestness and satire animate his depictions of rural museums, Civil War enactments, historic monuments. He gives us a row of Shaker dresses, a vintage 19tjh-century forge, a barn full of collectibles, Herman Melville’s writing desk, cutout figurines of lumbermen in a way that collides 1980s excess with a timeless American innocence.
Mr. Bosman offers a very different experience of kitsch than, for instance, Jeff Koons, where smoothness and slickness underline machined banality (though, as if to tease out a comparison, Mr. Bosman’s collectibles include toy lobsters like those favored by Mr. Koons.) Mr. Bosman’s painthandling is as ambiguous as his subject matter: The freshness and precision with which he paints wet in wet belies the allusions to painting-by-numbers in his style. The dresses, for instance, recall Wayne Thiebaud in the succulence of their delivery.
Initially so disconcerting, his paintings end up appealing precisely because of their parity of style and motif. His vulgarity has a perverse purism: Though illustrational, his illustrations are original, seemingly derived from observation rather than appropriated photographs or engravings. His images are vulgar in the edifying, original sense: powerfully plainspoken, in a common language.
”]Carroll Dunham is looking more Gustonian than ever, though his new show at Barbara Gladstone is equally haunted by the shade of Picasso. This comes across in broadly delineated, dark scaffolds, filled in with brushy dabs of pink and blue, and with the sense of priapic figures disporting themselves by the sea.
Mr. Dunham revels in the fleshiness of pink – its exposed, sexed, puffed up tipsiness. His forms juggle penile and testicular associations with other body parts and facial features to build up an absurdist portrait of an Ubu Roi type – sometimes we get to see his top hat – luxuriating at the beach. The Guston-Picasso influences come across stronger than in previous shows, despite the fact that his earlier work had more of the gutsy impasto associated with the last, loose painterly splurges of those men. By comparison, these new images are thinned-out, aqueous.
Even though he only really hit the artworld’s radar screen in the 1990s, Mr. Dunham remains a quintessential 1908s artist in terms of scale, speed, and subject: Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring must be counted as influences as strong as Picasso or Guston.
Mr. Dunham paints diptychs, presented here in overbearing frames, with halves differently oriented to emphasize spatial and compositional displacement. Some of the pairings read as the same forms from different perspectives. He pushes to an extreme, in this repetitive series of paintings, the oxymoronic hard-edged messiness of his style, with definitive outlines playing off gratuitous splatter. He is masterful in his handling of these opposing qualities, and they are the key stage effect in his drama.
In the back room, Mr. Dunham displays a set of sculptures in laser-cut steel on rather prissy coffeetable-like pedestals. These are charming enough, at first, in their nursery exuberance. Seeing his forms in cool black metal and three dimensions, however, only serves to emphasize how little intrinsic value there is to his cartoonish vocabulary – a mere vehicle for something profounder and more satisfying in his painting. The whimsy and humor quickly wears thin. The sculptures look like Tom Wesselman playing a joke at Antony Caro’s expense.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, November 4, 2004print