Monday, December 1st, 2008

Alexi Worth at D.C. Moore

November 13, 2008 to January 3, 2009
724 Fifth Avenue, at 57th Street
New York City, 212 247 2111

Thumbs 2008. Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York
Thumbs 2008. Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

The clever paintings in Alexi Worth’s third show at D.C. Mooreappear at first glance to be organic abstractions.  On closer inspection however, they reveal themselves as wittily constructed close-up views of white collar scenarios, like the old-fashioned “brain teasers” in kids’ magazines.

Several paintings directly address the world of art professionals. “Monograph,” (all works 2008) is a further installment of the adventures of Gerberman, Worth’s balding art critic alter-ego familiar from previous shows. “Examples,”offers an art historian-eye view of slides on a light table that rhyme with distant filing cabinets.

And then there is the embarrassed crotch-shot voyeurism of “Eye To Eye” and “Thumbs,” so vulgar, yet he (or the viewer) can’t look away. This red-faced eroticism is further sublimated in works such as “Half in Hand,” “Arranger,” and “Speckled Pyramid” in which the comically and metaphorically sexual close-ups of fruit are subjected to a patterned abstracting treatment that disconcertingly resembles that déclassé pop trickster, M.C. Escher.

“Tear sheet,” a crumpled fashion ad conjures both Juan Gris’s Cubism, in its trompe l’oeil effect, and – in its staring paranoiac eye and tactile eroticism — Surrealism.

This is all great fun, and yet the total effect is not entirely humorous. After all Worth, who has for a number of years pursued a parallel career as a public intellectual (writing for “The New Yorker” and ArtForum among other publications) is known to be the serious sort.

For one thing, they are well painted.    The grainy, opaque paint surfaces and austere earth palette bespeak an unfashionably non-ironic desire to produce ‘quality’ paintings.  And there are learned references and quotations from art history and photography.    Worth has written memorably about Manet and photography, examining the flattening effects of quasi-photographic “frontal lighting” found in Manet and also relevant to Worth.  “Light areas bleach, backgrounds go dim or black…” with the effect of bringing the viewer nearer, he has written about Manet in a way reflects on his own imagery.

Except that, in his own painting, the deco-like stylizations and coolly finished surfaces tend to push the viewer back, despite the breezy narratives. In the end, well made as they are, the paintings sidestep a serious involvement with either expressive painterly transcription as  understood by Manet or the power of stand-alone abstraction, both so suspect in many art world quarters today.

He is in fact, even more unapolegetically a narrative painter, in his images about the image, than that other ironic realist to whom he has often been compared, John Currin.  By the reckoning of the current scene, this puts him on safer ground.

But maybe this is making unduly heavy weather out of things, and .like the comics Worth is known to admire, these works are –as they appear- simply fun  If so, that is not really such a bad place to be.