Thursday, May 12th, 2005

Elizabeth Huey at Feigen Contemporary, Hilary Harkness at Mary Boone, Thomas Trosch at Fredericks Freiser

Elizabeth Huey through May 28 at Feigen Contemporary, 535 W 20th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-929-0500.

Hilary Harkness through June 25 at Mary Boone, 745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-752-2929.

Thomas Trosch through June 10 at Fredericks Freiser, 504 W 22nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-633-6555.

Elizabeth Huey The Cyclothymic Forest  (detail: right panel)  2005   acrylic and oil on wood panel, 48 x 192 inches  Courtesy Feigen Contemporary
Elizabeth Huey, The Cyclothymic Forest (detail: right panel) 2005 acrylic and oil on wood panel, 48 x 192 inches Courtesy Feigen Contemporary

Can a socially progressive male critic use the term “girlie” without getting lynched? Conscience and propriety would suggest not, yet an ascendant artworld aesthetic cries out for just this word.

Show after show, it seems, of emerging arists feature Barbie-like stick-figures, delicate, often saccherine colors, wilfully adolescent touch and a hyperbolic feyness that collides an inner child with a post-feminist sensibility. Whether the imagery is diaristic, narrative, or a postmodern jumble, the exemplar for the girlie generation, perversely enough, seems to be the wacky, tortured visionary Henry Darger: young women artists are as devoted to the Chicago janitor as he was to the Vivian Girls of his magnum opus.

Amy Wilson is an extreme example of this: “The Global Appeal of Liberty,” as her show is titled, closing this weekend at Bellwether, reveals an artistic personality split between psychological intensity and total drippiness, with a fusion of anal graphic handling and delicate watercolor, on the one hand, and long, bewildering bubble captions in a neat, fastidious script, on the other. The aesthetic is somewhere between medievalism and 5th grade.

What Ms. Wilson has in common with three other current exhibitions that warrant closer attention is a charged collision of the obsessive and the ditsy: one of these shows is even by a man, just to prove there is nothing “essentialist” in the girlie aesthetic.

At the front project room at Feigen Contemporary, Elizabeth Huey’s instense, involved symbolist narratives, often starring angels, little girls, and deer (a favored motif of the girlie generation, pace Maureen Cavanaugh and Jenny Scobel) are set in primal forests with intricately rendered Tudor mansions or oppressively bland institutional or utilitarian buildings as lurking presences.

A recent Yale MFA graduate, Ms. Huey’s made a strong debut at Michael Steinberg last year. Combining folkoristic, religious, scientific and historical imagery, she pits naivité and sophistication against one another in terms, equally, of subject matter, artistic language, and attitude; the same dichotomy relate to her own interestingly split intentions.

Her show is dominated by a monumental diptych: “ The Cyclothymic Forest,” (2005). The figure of a young woman in a stylish, slightly retro dress repeats in mirror form at the joining edges, suggesting she is the “Girl, Interrupted” of the psychological disorder referenced in the title. But the two canvases fail to divide along bipolar lines, as degrees of elation and enervation permeate both halves. She is lost in her forest of signs: washed out gray sheep meander along pathways; men in green jackets empty likely toxic contents of a bucket down a manhole; a dominatrix with a blanked-out face struts around; illustration book twin girls with spindly legs, one dressed in Indian feathers and a bandit mask, look on. The figures seem pasted in, oblivious of one another, their costumes appropriated from different epochs and unrelated dramas, and yet this is far from being a flattened-out, arbitrary decorative schemes: the elements are held together by a strong narrative urge.

In Ms. Huey’s handling, incongruity has neither the menace or humor of surrealism nor the cyncism of such image anarchists as David Salle or Sigmar Polke. What she offers instead, bravely, is an internalized bipolarity, with a handling and rendering that veers from masterful confidence to mousey feebleness, lyricism to quiet angst.


Hillary Harkness Dutch Treat  2005  graphite, oil, watercolor/paper, 11-1/4 x 10-3/4 inches
Hillary Harkness, Dutch Treat 2005 graphite, oil, watercolor/paper, 11-1/4 x 10-3/4 inches

The narrative energy in Hilary Harkness is in a higher gear than in Ms. Huey: the focus of her sapphic, sado-masochistic orgy scenes, pillages and riots is unrelenting. Her skills are in harmony with her vision: where Ms. Huey paints with an awkward approximation of old master painterliness, Ms. Harkness has the hard, clean, nerdish exactitude of a cartoonist. She can be oldmasterly, too, but in her case it is the finesse of mannerist paintings on copper that come to mind: paint is transparent, surfaces sealed.

But while a typical Harkness is crowded to bursting point with legions of near-identical figures—willowy, leggy stick figures running around torturing each other and exuding as much individuality and personality in the process as laboratory mice—they actually share with Ms. Huey’s angels and children a vacant sense of alienation. Her cloned cast is a herd of loners.

Less than a year ago Mary Boone presented her first show of this fascinatingly perverse artist: three relatively small panels were given a wall each of her Chelsea barn. Now, in a less precious display, an exhibition ostensibly devoted to drawings, which actually includes new panels and works in oil and watercolor on paper alongside line drawings, is offered at their uptown gallery. Morally speaking, it is business as usual: a massacre on a beach, a shoot out amidst back to the future modernist skyscrapers, a mass ablution in a luxurious ladies room.

As ever, formally speaking, there is an amazing balance of detail and all-overness. “Heavy Cruisers” presents in cut-away cross section the bowels of a ship heavily populated by sailorettes equally busy with the naughty and the nautical. If the title is a suitably unsubtle pun, the handling of different mediums nonetheless reveal the extraordinary touch and control of this weird young woman. The firm delicacy of her line drawing, for instance, which have the legato exactitude of engravings, recall the neoclassical draughtsman John Flaxman. It makes one think: if Flaxman had honed his skills to Sade rather than Dante art history would have had its Harkness two centuries earlier.


Thomas Trosch Musical Comedy Medley #1 (detail) 1996   oil on canvas, 70 x 84 inches   Courtesy Fredericks Freiser
Thomas Trosch, Musical Comedy Medley #1 (detail) 1996 oil on canvas, 70 x 84 inches Courtesy Fredericks Freiser

“Pardon me if I seem lost in a world like a girl in a dream,” exclaims the bubble above the head of one of Thomas Trosch’s protagonists, a middle-aged lady presiding over a suburban salon. Mr. Trosch’s paintings are a risqué satire of modern art and bourgeois femininity. His absurdly camp style has often been compared with Florine Stettheimer in terms of whimsicality, naivité, and jolly palette, but where Stettheimer’s subject was her own high powered interaction with the pioneers of American modernism (Duchamp was a fixture in her salon) fused with a language, however fey, of personal intensity, Mr. Trosch offers a different edge in his collision of subject and style. He has almost recognizable Abstract Expressionist masters, or at least their spin-offs, blend with his rococo touch and girlie palette, sending up the supposed machismo of these heroic masters. But Mr. Trosch is demostrably more than a mere satirist: within the histrionics of his own tongue in cheek style he is concerned with the same formal issues as his mid-century artistic victims, for all that he tries to seem as blasé about them as his ladies-who-lunch fashion victims.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 2005