Most things, if and when they return from the dead, are dried-out and stiff. However when several outmoded artistic styles turn up in the recent Cheim and Read exhibition from Tal R, they seem fresh; thankful, maybe, for their release from limbo. Behind this resuscitation is the process of mimicry. Alstadt Girl presents new paintings and drawings that combine a range of styles from the early-twentieth century: Synthetic Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Symbolism. Simply put, Tal R could have been more novel in making this selection; further, for several years now contemporary art has been awash in re-hashings of early Modernist painting. Still, this exhibition is a masters class in how to have a relationship with Modernist painting that is less like cheeky art history, and more like magic incantation. Unfortunately, in channeling this period, Tal R has become mixed up in its most regrettable aspects. The exhibition’s title translates as “Old Town Girl,” and almost every image in it depicts a female body, either explicitly prone, or without any indication of agency or personhood. Following multiple waves of feminist critique, both in art history and at large, a tacit agreement has been made that the picturing of women in this way – especially by male artists – is an ethical no-fly zone. Some men, equipped with unique and committed styles of self-reflectivity, have managed to move through this fraught territory, making critical contributions from within it. Tal R isn’t one of them.
Working like an omnivorous aggregator of scenes and motifs, Tal R made a big splash in the early aughts, churning out paintings big and small that, uniformly seductive in their rich colors and absorptive matte surfaces, formed a vibrant montage of the childhood subconscious. There were dancing horses that recalled Chagall, circus tents, buggies, star-bursts, houses, and floppy shapes laid into charmingly haphazard patterns. Tal R’s insouciance and a wizardly handling of structure and pictorial movement pushed and pulled one another. At times he became Edwardian in vision, picturing steamships and men in pointy shoes and tall hats, wearing long coats and curly mustaches and taking aim at one another with tiny revolvers. His use of these early twentieth-century motifs seemed a slack indulgence in a popularized style of nostalgia, like steam-punk for painters. But this added up to nothing more than a disappointing blip in his otherwise hyperactive mixing of reference, shape, and compositional schema, through which it seemed possible to travel widely and manically in the strange vagaries of imagination – both Tal R’s, and by way of an empathic transfusion between artwork and viewer, our own.
Alstadt Girl occasionally drifts into a wispy storybook figuration, recalling those earlier paintings. Appropriately, in addition to mimicking modernist styles, Tal R has reproduced an archaic relationship between artist and muse. For these paintings, his models were “strangers and casual acquaintances.” Having taken sketches of these women on pieces of paper pulled from a suitcase, he returned to his studio to translate the drawings into paintings. (I would have thought that the time when a man with a suitcase, just off a train from Copenhagen, could convince complete strangers to accompany him home in order to pose half-naked, was long past. But Tal R seems to have maintained this mysterious power.)
Consider the relationship between a title like The Berlin (2014), and the subject who posed for the painting it indexes. What does this cool labeling of a portrait tell us about the artist’s attitude towards his subject? The image pictures a woman on knees and elbows, her ass meeting the picture plane. Round and voluptuous, her cheeks taper down, where they are interrupted by short crescent lines, describing two foreshortened calves, which in turn move down towards her tiny feet. The left cheek is rusty red, the right orange, and each is outlined by swift, scrubby lines in green and purple. In the upper half of the painting, the woman’s torso, dissolving into patches of red and yellow, turns to the right. Her left hand appears from beneath it, in order to clutch her breast, while her right hand, depicted as a diminutive nub, like the trunk of a baby elephant, touches a half-obscured face that in turn lies sideways on a swooping form – a pillow or duvet – outlined in wide, translucent swaths of blue and purple. As is often the case in this show, the subject’s eyes are closed. All of this takes place on striped bedding in a lively range of colors: yellow ochre against dirty maroon, warm tomato reds, pinks that swing between rose and bubble gum, as well as several violets, tinged with varying opacity, and touched by lighter under-painting. Nearer the top, her body is framed by several languid shapes in translucent blue and green, and below, by a bar of dull crimson that spans the painting’s lower edge, stabilizing the composition. A small stylized signature, like an anachronistic charm, appears in this stripe.
There are ways of experiencing this painting and not immediately interpreting its relationship towards history as negligent. Unfortunately, they are overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary. Unanimously, the paintings in this show do not reflect upon or criticize, but simply repeat insidious problems: first, that it has long been the sovereign privilege of men to picture women; and second, that these pictures have largely depicted women as passive and disinterested. It is obvious that the second operation serves to reinforce the first. This situation is either lost on Tal R, or he is supportive of it. Either option is disquieting, especially considering that for many years the artist held a teaching position at Düsseldorf Academy, an art school mythologized in twentieth-century art-history for its production of artists like Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Blinky Palermo.
In the title work, Alstadt Girl (2014), we have another sleeping beauty. Her almond-shaped eyes are neither closed nor open, but split down the middle, half peachy-pink and half yellow. This time, we see Tal R’s model from the waste up. Although he has only exposed a single nipple, the female body is still used as either a device for formal exploration, or a mute hologram of sexual fantasy. From the look of things, Alstadt Girl isn’t interested in doing much more than lie, waiting to be taken, artistically or otherwise. Her left shoulder, coral orange, rises towards the painting’s top edge like a child’s head under a bed sheet. Her hair is a white ground filled with stripes seemingly plucked from a Morris Louis painting. Her face, also split between two colors, is half deep, Phthalo blue and half-luminescent red. Her right arm is a flat black and appears from behind her head, angling towards the top center of the picture, before the hand attached to it drops down and to the right, to touch an ear. In the top left, there is a vibrant and thickly-painted Naples-yellow shape that can be read as a piece of furniture, but only in context. Rhyming with this shape, the black arm becomes disembodied, just a piece of the picture. This toggling of forms between corporeality and shape is a nice painterly trick. It draws attention to the way that our minds, racing towards signification, gloss over the complex aspects of things. In the context of this exhibition, however, the separation of body parts from humanness takes on a decidedly non-emancipatory intonation.
While displaying a virtuosic ease with the discipline of picture-making, these pictures offer surfeits of information. With two exceptions – Birdmask (2014), in which an androgynous creature seems compressed into a dark, muddy space made from thick, claustrophobic applications of oil paint, and The Drawing Class (2014), which recalls the staining methods of Helen Frankenthaler – the eye moves constantly between ranges of surfaces, each provoking unique haptic understandings, and each holding and reflecting light in specific ways. There are thick impasto sections next to thick applications, in which the canvas’s weave, catching shadow and light, revives the crystalline quality of color, often lost in synthetic reproduction. In Rosa Smoke (2013) a woman’s bouffant shimmers, carrying a light dispersal of sparkles.
One of the exhibition’s most immersive moments occurred in the gallery’s deepest corner, where twenty-seven framed drawings on paper hang salon-style, on adjacent walls. Each paper has been treated with rabbit-skin glue and pigment, in pastel shades of pink, purple, and yellow. Into these vivid grounds, Tal R’s black-crayon drawings of young women seem to have just dropped, effortlessly. The same problems addressed above, persist here. A piece entitled M (2014), showing a topless woman in blue jeans and boots, sitting on a bed and spreading her legs, echoes Valie Export’s self-portrait Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969). Therein, Export, sitting on a bench in Munich, stared dead into the camera, with wild hair and firm eyes, exposing her vagina through a gap in her leather pants. Far from communicating solidarity with Export’s radical returning of the male gaze, Tal R’s drawings make a cartoon of female toughness. When the women in these drawings have their eyes open, they stare blankly. Often, their eyes are filled in with black, eliminating female perspective altogether.
Searching for an approach to this minefield of an exhibition, I remembered a description given by Jan Verwoert in a 2010 talk at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery, of bad-boy artists as children who seem hungry for sweets, but actually lust after punishment. Having put their hand in the proverbial cookie jar by breaking one taboo or another, these artists wait around, relishing in anticipation of a critical spanking. This is one way that holdovers of patriarchy manage to stay afloat. It’s hard to reprimand someone who wants to be reprimanded. But you also can’t keep quiet. Alstadt Girl makes this problem clear and present.
One predictable retort to the criticisms I’ve made here would describe these paintings as feminist critiques of sexist vision, from a male perspective. Boris Groys has termed this method “the symbolic sacrifice.” Therein, artists manifest problematic parts of themselves in service of a larger cause. A classic – if contested – example is Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), in which a sanitized fantasy is replaced by things more real: a woman whose body is neither voluptuous nor waif-like, who engages the viewer with a knowing stare, and who was either underage or very close to it. No such indications of reflectivity show up here. Nor do these paintings delve into the uncomfortable interior of heterosexual male desire (in the way of Robert Crumb’s drawings, for instance).
The unfortunate situation of Tal R having grossly misused his facility for beauty becomes even more disappointing when you notice what a good opportunity he missed. When sex shows up in contemporary art, it’s mostly alluded to through Freudian metaphor. This strategy is meant to draw attention to the repression of sexuality, and differences of sexuality, in contemporary culture. In some cases, as in the work of Robert Gober – recently presented in a retrospective at MoMA – the effect is moving and illuminating. Often, though, this quarantining of sex within discussions of repression and trauma makes the artworld seem prudish and afraid. With his intoxicating color and savvy in how to make the body strange to itself, Tal R could envelop us in sex. But that would require him to picture reciprocity – whether tender, lustful, or antagonistic – and this is a far more difficult task than masturbating to familiar fantasies. Self-pleasure is not in-and-of-itself the problem (critics who make unqualified use of the word “masturbatory” as a term of derision reinforce harmful taboos.) But though Tal R may not, all-of-a-sudden, have become a misogynist, his laziness exacerbates a problem as ugly as his paintings are gorgeous. For this reason, my relationship with his work will be going into indefinite suspension. And that’s too bad. We could have had something.