IDOLS OF PERVERSITY
Bellwether until August 6
134 Tenth Avenue, at 19 Street, 212-929-5959
Mitchell Algus until July 16
511 W. 25th Street, 212-242-6242
McKenzie until July 30
511 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-989-5467
The Pre-Raphaelites still have a lot to answer for. The cult of wan Ophelias, Madonna-vampires, and socialite sirens that began with Rossetti and Millais reached its apogee in Munch and Klimt, only surviving at this stage in history as a kitsch parody of itself. But a new show at Bellwether suggests the reign of sultry and sinister lovelies continues unabated. “Idols of Perversity” is a portrait gallery packed cheek-by-jowl with killer damsels.
If dead critics could be resurrected for the purpose of reviewing contemporary art, this show might be the occasion to disturb the slumber of Max Nordau, as it is an almost willful vindication of the vituperative anathemas expressed in his notorious 1892 polemic, “Degeneration.” The title of the show comes from Bram Dijkstra’s illuminating, level-headed analysis of fin-de-siècle artistic misogyny; ironically, Amazon’s “customers also bought” list for Dijkstra’s book is topped by Nordau.
John Currin, the best-known artist in the show, is by no means the sickest or silliest — a sure indication of the general level here. His fusion of schlock taste and appeal to tested academic technique does set a standard tactic, however, which others in this show follow or aspire to. His “Chewy,” a bald-headed rococo dame at her morning toilette, about to choose her wig for the day, has a tame finesse out of keeping with the company it keeps (or the artist’s own norm).
More in line with the standards of curators Thomas Woodruff and Becky Smith is Christoph Steinmeyer’s high-artifice, greased-up “Dryade” (2003), which derives its mild, nerdish intensity from a relentless symmetry. The contribution of Graham Little (an artist paired with Mr. Currin in a shared room at MoMA’s 2003 drawing exhibition, “Eight Propositions”), a portrait on gesso of a supermodel in suede boots and brown jacket, seated against a vaguely Old Masterish neutral brown ground, is brought to life by an exquisitely rendered face and gaudily Klimtian Lycra leggings.
This show brings together artists of different intentions and skill levels. Many make obvious and familiar jests about art and kitsch. A vulgar pastoral of a nymph and a spaniel by Catherine Howe, a Currin wannabe, falls between the stools of Rococo and Dada. A double portrait in contrastingly smooth and impastoed finish by Pieter Schoolwerth is essentially an academic warm-up exercise. Others look like genuine strays from tattoo parlors (June Kim, Mel Odom), prison art programs (Sas Christian), or the art departments of publishers of sci-fi books and heavy-metal albums (Ted Mineo, Lori Earley).
Yet there are also displays of genuine artistry. Ben Blatt, Ray Caesar, and Mr. Woodruff himself have the formidably obsessive and inventive skills of 16th-century Mannerists. Julie Heffernen could have been drafted to keep them company.
The emphasis in this show is on the idols, not the perversity. With the exception of a tattooed, moderately hirsute gent in a leather jacket, one or two extremely convincing transvestites, and a smattering of prepubescent schoolgirls, every other model on display, even the ones with horns and tails, could get a job at a Playboy Club. Most of the artists, in other words, may be ironic about style but are earnest about their — and our — libidos. The mild porn-quotient ensures a work’s status as kitsch, thus making it respectable as an iconoclastic gesture. The problem–as Dada fast approaches its centennial–is that such a gesture is no longer in the least perverse. Idolatry is an orthodox article of avant-garde faith.
The fault line in this show isn’t between irony and earnestness: The best kind of mannerism of necessity has both. The redoubtable Duncan Hannah, represented by four works scattered around the show, makes works steeped in enigmatic, fey awkwardness. His trademark Balthusian languor, knowing amateurishness, and wistful, obsessive heroine worship remind us that, long before Degeneration came along, there was good, wholesome Melancholia.
Viewers with a real taste for the painterly perverse should check out Agustín Fernández at Mitchell Algus. Mr. Algus is renowned as the champion of older artists battling artworld indifference or memory loss, a brief amply met by the valiant Mr. Fernández. Born in Havana in 1928, trained at New York’s Art Students League and the subject of some success in Paris Surrealist circles in the 1960s, the artist has lived in New York since 1972 without staging a single solo exhibition prior to this one.
He did enjoyed some exposure, though, when a canvas from 1961 was used as a prop in Brian de Palma’s 1980 movie, “Dressed to Kill” (the still graced his announcement card). The painting in question, “Développement d’Un Délire,” (above left) is actually a tour de force of fantasty and invention. Rendered with a luscious painterly containment that looks like a cross between Yves Tanguy and Carravagio, its ambiguous personages are at once erotic and menacing, compelling and otherworldly.
This tastefully installed historic overview demonstrates stylistic and iconographical diversity but consistent aesthetic concerns: like Matta, Bacon and Balthus, Mr. Fernández’s imagery does service to the kinky without giving way to the kitsch. He has ways to convey an idealised sensation of bound flesh and penetrated orifice without being anatomically explicit. At the same time, he has a private vocabulary of armor and heraldry that achieves high artifice without being camp. A memorable set of square canvases of abstracted but teasing finesse (the three canvases stacked at the center of the right image) consist of fleshlike forms which pucker to expose a hole at their center, over which hover suggestively an object Mr. Fernández’s background encourages one to read as Havana cigar.
“Good Vibrations” at McKenzie Fine Art surveys the recent, widespread revival of Op Art, the abstract style from the 1960s that played psychological games with image cognition— close-knit lines, repeating sequences, and jarring chromas that serate your vision. Like Seurat’s pointillism, Op Art leaves the final mixing of forms and colors to the viewer’s brain.
This show focuses insistently on contemporary work in the Op Art field. The only veteran of the original “perceptual abstraction,” as Peter Selz named the tendency in a famous Museum of Modern Art exhibition, is Julian Stanczak. The younger artists tap the “retro” appeal of the scientific optimism of the original movement but bring fresh and disparate influences: mysticism, primitivism, acid trips, screensavers.
Susie Rosemarin’s technique is redolent of Mr. Stanczak’s: slight variations on a strict lattice to induce a blurry sensation of movement. Only she uses the technique to induce the illusion of a Cross of St. Andrew pulsating against a white Iron Cross, a sort of visual pun on “visionary.” Sara Sosnowy’s intense, obsessive drawings, combining Op Art and Australian Aboriginal painting, recall James Siena. Tom Martinelli induces a familiar buzz from the simple misregistration of one colored ball superimposed upon another. And Barbara Takenaga plumbs exquisite depths in her mind-numbingly fastidious concentric arrangement of little blobs of diminishing scale, inducing the mystical sensation of being sucked into a vortex.
The cheery palette and compositional fizz of “Good Vibrations” might seem a perfect palate-cleanser after the fetid decadence of “Idols,” but in a funny way it is a chip off the same block. Bellwether’s idols and McKenzie’s vibrations both trade in the frisson of revival, after all, require fastidious skill, and make appeal to basic bodily experiences, whether libidinal or retinal.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 7, 2005print