Unbelievably, painting is yet again under assault. Despite strength of activity evident in commercial galleries, art school degree shows, and studios, the medium is held in suspicion thanks to its virtual exclusion from the Whitney Biennial and the inaugural exhibitions of the new New Museum. Once more, oil on canvas is made to feel like a guilty pleasure.
There is no better way to savor that sensation than in the enjoyment of “Bad” painting. In this strange stylistic phenomenon of conceptually driven academicism, kitsch, and mannerism, painterly technique is less a means to end than an end in itself. Being a painter becomes a performance, a posture.
And yet, once they make a career out of this position, painters are in an odd place: however tongue-in-cheek they may have been about painterly quality, the sheer mechanics of working in traditional styles, confronting the very problems that were historically the motor of stylistic development, means that their “bad” painting gets better. There is progression within their transgression.
Two iconoclasts currently showing now are in danger of getting so good as to become iconic: Delia Brown, at D’Amelio Terras, and Hilary Harkness, at Mary Boone. Both artists manage to collide issues of gender and technique in ways that give avant-garde edge to their formal finesse: “old master” technique is played off against the femininity of their motifs.
Delia Brown’s show is titled “Precious,” a suitably ambiguous term, equally connoting treasure and affectation. Her subject is mother-child relations, so the word fits the sense of intense connection. But it also sits well with the highly wrought surfaces of these compressed genre scenes, which are generally no more than a foot and half in their longest dimension. She depicts figures in luxurious domestic interiors in a virtuoso style, at once tightly observed and dashed off. They merge the unabashed sentimentality of Norman Rockwell and the bravura brushwork of John Singer Sargent.
Ms. Brown chose her models from among acquaintances in their late 30s, women nearing the outer reach of childbearing age who are not yet actually mothers. The kids they are posed with were borrowed. Knowing this adds a layer of “as if”-ness that bolsters the artifice of the artist’s investment in her appropriated, academic figurative language.
Sargent notwithstanding (the artist’s printed notes also cite Mary Cassatt, Fragonard and Balthus as pictorial points of reference), Ms. Brown’s work more strongly recalls mid-20th Century traditionalists like John Koch, and countless marginal, conservative artists whose commissioned family portraits graced upper middle class homes of that period than they do bona fide art historical sources.
Ms. Brown’s preciousness relates to a broad current of contemporary women artists presided over by Elizabeth Peyton (whose latest show closes at Gavin Brown this weekend) who knowingly fuses commercial illustration style and fey emotion. Ms. Harkness’s intense detail and miniaturist skill, equal parts old master and comic book, fits the same somewhat nerdish aesthetic.
In her statement, Ms. Brown understands the gender issues of her stylistic departure in historic terms. “In painting school, one was told not to be ‘precious,’ which was a way of saying that one must instead be bold, muscular, unattached, unsentimental — in a word, masculine.” Ironically, the paint handling and compositions of the shows that first brought the artist to attention had such qualities — orgy scenes of well-bronzed young figures and self-portraits that accentuated her buxom features were suitably Rubeneque, in a highly kitsch way.
In compression of scale, however, Ms. Brown has begun to tap a genuinely precious seam of her own talent. Without losing the insolence that is essential to her aesthetic, she has painted a show of real gems. The tight scale makes it harder for the artist to indulge her tendency towards slick mimesis, energizing the work with an enriching awkwardness. This comes out, for instance, in the treatment of space in “Snack Time” (all 2008), in which a child sits at Saarinen’s Tulip table with an English Bull Terrier nestling up to him while a French bulldog looks on: all the postures and expression — canine and childish — are perfectly caught in this reduced space.
In “Mother’s Bathroom” two teenage girls try on make up while perched on the edge of a tub. Their intertwined, spindly legs have a soft floppiness more akin to Ms. Harkness’s mannerist figuration than Ms. Brown’s habitual soft-core photorealism.
“A Pink Rocker” plays odd games with scale as an Asian woman with an occidental child on her lap sits in what is probably the child’s chair in a distant room, a toy filled cot dominating the foreground and adding further confusion to the varying head sizes.
There is still plenty that is obnoxious and meretricious about these pictures: Neither Ms. Brown nor her champions would want it otherwise. But even in the most self-consciously “decadent” Fragonardian painting, “A Young Girl’s Room,” in which a Chloe Sevigny-like adolescent with dreamy limbs frolics with a Highland Terrier, the play of different lights, textures, and perspective has more to do with the dynamics of facture – getting stuff down in limited space – than with detached style games. It makes for a rich painterly experience.
Ms. Harkness, who has been written about in-depth in these pages before, is a mannerist with an unwavering ability to marry perversity and skill. She is a master of kinky scale, packing busy compositions with tiny yet dynamic figures engaged in strange activities that fuse cruelty and pleasure. Their industry — relentless yet dispassionate — mirrors that of their own making, and our viewing. The figures in the paintings, and the paintings themselves, exude a cold, absurdist eroticism.
She paints armies of Barbie doll-like stick-figure women, their tight-fitting apparel, rather like Lara Croft’s, suited equally to the bedroom and the battlefield. Their activities generally involve pleasuring or torturing, but with little emotional involvement in either case.
The scene has a Second World War ambiance, though often with contemporary details thrown in. Her style is a cross between comic book fetishist Eric Stanton and Hieronymous Bosch. She will present a building or battleship in cutaway isometric so that you can see room to room overrun with her women, ant-like in the way they devour space.
“Pearl Trader” (2006) makes the Christies auction house at Rockefeller Center, with its distinctive curved façade and Sol le Witt mural, the locale for a battle orgy surrounded by art. In one room there is a Damien Hirst tank and a Roy Lichtenstein “girl” signaling suitable touchstones for Ms. Harkness’s reductive eroticism and chilled cruelty.
Ms. Harkness shares with Sade not just the pathology to which the Marquis lent his name but also an essential element of style — endless variation, at once exhilerating and enervating, upon an obsessive theme.
In a departure from Ms. Harkness’s normal procedure, “Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Paris, October, 1939” (2007–08), painted on copper, increases the scale of individual figures, and is overtly quotational. It is a handsome work, and it is understandable that the artist should look for an escape from her bizarre servitude to the miniature, but it does not yet have the bravura awkwardness that is her essential hallmark.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 15, 2008 under the heading “Gallery Going: In Defense of Painting”print