Jennifer Coates: Lesser Gods of Lakewood, PA at High Noon Gallery
December 2, 2021 to January 23, 2022
124 Forsyth Street and 136 Eldridge Street
Both between Delancey and Broome streets,
New York City, highnoongallery.com
These new paintings by Jennifer Coates, like her previous bodies of work, arrive in a headlong rush of invention festooned upon a canny theme, in this case the female body in nature. Previously, Coates made exuberant, punkish paintings exploring dubious episodes in the life of processed food. Now she places groups of nude women –– she names them as nymphs, dryads and goddesses –– into clearings in deep, dark forests, thus activating irresistible tropes of a Western painting tradition that arose with spied-upon bathing beauties (Europa, Io, Venus, Susannah) meant for royal boudoirs. But while this hook induces thoughts about the male gaze, from Titian and Correggio to Cézanne and Matisse –– and about the feminist reckoning with that moribund tradition (Spero, Schneemann) as well as the postfeminist inversion of that reckoning (Kurland, Yuskavage) –– the figures themselves can be all but incidental in Coates’ overgrown miasmas of tree trunks, wildflowers, whiskery stalks and impenetrable leafage. As with the food paintings, where her toxic acrylics performed a kind of transubstantiation into Cheez Whiz and Smuckers, Coates’ forests are indexical floriations: sinuous strokes are branches; spills can be glitters of leaves; spray paint, fog; protruding paint-licks, thorns, ticks or mosquitos. A more occult art history comes to mind in these unkempt, unruly wildernesses, one which begins where the babes-in-the-woods tradition itself, after giving birth to modernism, withers away.
Dryads and Pollinators (Birds) (all works 2021), one of two large paintings with that title in the exhibition, is a swirling chorus of graphically insistent hummingbirds, white blossoms and filigreed stalks that recalls the backyard watercolor raptures of Charles Burchfield. While Burchfield’s glades are uninhabited, Coates’ everyday ecstatic includes luminous beings, spirits of the forest whose spare, archaic profiles float among the flowers. Faces, flowers, birds and weeds are painted with a kind of folk-art zeal while the cerulean forest behind, solidly modeled then dematerialized by dancing layers of sprayed pigment, is appealingly contrary in color, scale and attack.
Coates’ experimental approach to mark-making — thick or thin, macro or micro, tight or loose, brushed, sprayed or sponged –– goes for both forests and figures. In Grieving Woman, a lone woman in a classical pose is incised in white against the mottled background like a fading figure on a krater. Also cut from Hellenic lines, in this case black, are five hollow women in Mystery Cult, who seem to be lost in the (ergot-infested?) weeds, while by contrast, the protagonists in Three Dryads are entangled in a single libidinous squiggle of green and yellow paint that, like flesh according to Francis Bacon, verges on the repulsive. Changing tactics again, Coates gives the golden apparitions in Three Nymphs careful, earthy substance. They gesture with a narrative refinement that suggests, along with their warm, coppery tarnish, the microcosmos of a Sienese predella. Coates, however, putting the brakes on such skillful seduction according to her restless temperament, encloses this exquisite scene in a dark, seething knot of trunks and branches as brut as the figures are delicate.
Nor does Coates forswear outright satire: Bacchanal Before a Herm of Pan ridicules the sublime, if rather stiff, Poussin painting of that title as a girl orgy, complete with two hapless goats. Wry gender critique aside, the painting’s busy, stop-motion scenography seems like an attempt to do the master over again after Henry Darger –– or vice-versa. In any case, thoughts of Cézanne’s “after nature” version of Poussin, his bathers, cannot but come to mind. Poussin’s trees are uncannily naturalistic, his figures –– extricated from sarcophagi –– not so much, and thus there is a certain logic to the way the trunks and limbs of Cézanne’s bathers undergo metamorphosis, like the nymph Daphne, into timber. And thence into Cubism, and all that followed.
The most compelling figure in the show, for that matter, is distinctly Picassoid. Re-engineered for function, the small, reclining nude of Fire Watcher marvelously contains her own bath. Behind her, the fire of the title rages as a preposterously scumbled orange-green goo, barely contained by the jutting blue and purple forms of super-cooled, super-flat conifers. As in all the paintings, however experimental, internal typology is firmly organized: trees are trees, figures are figures –– and in Dryads and Pollinators (Moths), insects are insects. In this second large, ravishing version of the theme, clamorous day has turned to mysterious night. The precisionist symbolism of Odilon Redon and Fred Tomaselli echo in Coates’ crisp ferns and fluorescent lepidoptera, scintillating against a nocturne of blue-violet and black. Yet rogue textures –– icky drips and thorny bumps interrupting the most beautiful passages –– remind us that nature, just like art, is a messy and dangerous concoction.print