Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

Philip Pearlstein at Betty Cuningham and Danica Phelps: Wake at Zach Feuer

Betty Cuningham to October 22
541 West 25 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 242 2772

Zach Feuer to October 1
530 West 24 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 989 7700

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, September 22, 2005

Philip Pearlstein Model on Bamboo Lounge with Artist Mannequin 2005 oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Philip Pearlstein, Model on Bamboo Lounge with Artist Mannequin 2005 oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

Philip Pearlstein is a collector of oddities, in life and within his paintings.  A typical studio set up juxtaposes assorted toys and curios—kitsch or decrepit in varying degrees—amidst his trademark emotionally vacant, lithe, naked models.

The poses and arrangements are studiedly weird, but somehow, the more tricksy his jumbled and skewed images become, the more disconcertingly prosaic his paint handling seems in comparison.  The same hand is used, in an even, measured way, to render volumetrically complex flesh and flat fabrics, solid forms and elusive shadows.  It is as if in the execution of his mannerist compositions he has an attitude to match the disconnect of his models from their contorted repose.  The viewer is left in a similar space, poised between tedium and fancy, alienation and intrigue.

The artist would have us believe, apparently, that his sole concerns are perception itself and formal construction.  But such an array of at once functional and fantasy objects as a Chinese kite, decoys, a butcher’s sign, iconic pop trademarks, cartoon characters, a weathervane airplane, Americana, and tribal artefacts, not to mention the nude as “play thing” –at once locus and signifier of desire—cannot but operate at some level of metaphor, if not allegory.  Catalogue essayist Alexi Worth identifies for these recent paintings “a tricky middle zone where symbolism and formalism cohabit.”  At the very least, the images operate as object poems, even if they resist decoding.

But often as not, the symbolism seems as literal as the perception.  “Model on Bamboo Lounge with Artist Mannequin” (2005) is almost a manifesto piece for an artist concerned with teasing the boundaries between nature and artifice, what is alive and what is art.  The dramatis personae have interchangeable designations: the wooden lay figure could accurately be deemed a model, while the reclining female figure, by virtue of being in the employ of Mr. Pearlstein, could be termed, following the French term, an artist’s mannequin.  Her pose, kimono akimbo to reveal brown suntanned flesh, one hand upon her thigh, the other pressed on her brow, is oddly stilted (“wooden”) while the light lends a teasingly animated quality to the polished, heavily grained, actually wooden figurine.

Mr. Pearlstein often singles out this African-American model for images that play on visual-verbal issues of color and tone.  In an earlier series she would sprawl over a dollshouse model of the White House, for instance.  In the current group she poses a couple of times on a funky, 1970s inflatable blue blow-up chair in images whose titles reference her dreadlocks—again, the buzz words that go off, consciously or not, on registering the object and its perceptual properties are “color,” “skin,” “otherness.”

There are two pictures which feature a model with her legs crossed over an African drum, both from 2005.  In terms of visual metaphor there seems to be a play on tautness, a sense of stretched skin and tightened muscle uniting instrument and sitter.  The drum has stylised animals carved in relief—at yet another level, a verbal pun on the mannerism of the model’s pose in which tension and relaxation play off against each other.

Apart from the conflict between the literal and the metaphorical, the psychological responses that a Pearlstein elicits are complex.  Within the formal terms the artist seems to prefer there’s a confusion about status: are they “realist” in the sense of using a received language to achieve an impact and immediacy comparable to photography, or are they perceptualist, in the sense of really being about looking afresh and putting down what is seen and experienced, however odd and surprising and actually different from photography that turns out to be?  The awkwardness and distortion that arise from cheating or doing without singlepoint perspective suggest the latter: it is about fresh seeing.  But with all the years that he has been doing it Mr Pearlstein has generated his own set of tropes—radical foreshortening, shadow play, the play of fabrics that are already flattened against volumetric forms that he himself flattens—that are as much a language as is realism.  His naivite is a form of sophistication, and vice versa.

Danica Phelps April 17 - 22, 2005 2005 mixed media on paper, 30 x 22 inches Courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery (LFL)
Danica Phelps, April 17 - 22, 2005 2005 mixed media on paper, 30 x 22 inches Courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery (LFL)

Time is an implicit element in the paintings of Mr. Pearlstein.  Although the surfaces give off, so to speak, conflicting reports—they are chock full of facts but dutifully delivered—the sense of detail and attention, not to mention the cheesed off expression of the models, suggest the long haul.  Danica Phelps, however, leaves no ambiguity about time in her work: It is the work.  Taking the diaristic to a literalist extreme, her show at Zach Feuer presents erotic doodles, flow diagrams, and expenditure charts that list her daily activities on an hourly, not to mention cent by cent basis.

Her hand—whether offering graphic designerish rendering or vaguely expressive, langourous figuration, and whether drawing or writing—is at once neat and dashed off, fastidious and fiddly.  She constructs Filofax-like (but handmade) charts filled in, retrospectively, with the activities that have accounted for her day.  “STUDIO” in block letters will account for long stretches (but not as long, one suspects, as Mr. Pearlstein or his sitters) while other repeating activities are walking the dog, paying bills, chatting with Debi, eating with Debi, making love with the lucky Debi.

The lovemaking brings out the draughtsman in Ms. Phelps, in overlapping, outlined wire figures in minimally defined interior spaces.  Expenditure alone however brings out the colorist.  Ms. Phelps continues from earlier shows an elaborate notational system of income and expenditure in barcodes of reds, yellows and greens.

Despite coming from a very different culture (feminism, conceptualism and fluxus) Ms. Phelps is definitely a coda of sorts to Mr. Pearlstein: Think nutty observation, repeating patterns, overlapping languages, and oddly compelling tedium.