Gallery Going, March
David Levine at Forum; trompe l’oeil at Hollis Taggart; photorealism at Bernaducci-Meisel
Go on, admit it. Trompe l'oeil is fun. The pleasures of it are ingrained and enduring, as appealing to us moderns as to the ancient Romans. However much our codes of viewing have changed, the structure of play remains the same. We still know the thrill of "Look, Ma, no hands!"
The Grans, a married couple who work together on the same canvas, play the game with theatrical élan and an antiquarian's delight in relics. They use their stock of images—antique playing cards, old books and manuscripts, flea market treasures—in architectural ways that parallel Arcimbaldi's Renaissance "portraits" assembled from fruits and vegetables. Coloration is subdued. Crowded subjects are bathed in the faded tones of an old attic.
Compositional cleverness risks overwhelming the graphic beauty of the Grans' repertory and their evident love of worn textures. Born in the old Soviet Union, the Grans bring to painting the same baroque inventiveness that animates Mikhail Bulgokov's "The Master and Margarita". This prompts the spectator to search these elaborate constructions for clues to disguised realities. We look for elements of vanitas, emblems of forewarning that emerge unbidden from artifacts of our own past. But surface gamesmanship is all.
Ingenuity can misfire, as in "After the Storm," in which the contrivance, old books and papers shaped into a galleon, is hokey and sentimental. But in the main, the work is playful and winning, like miniature stage design. The Grans simulate the dust and tear of ages on the kinds of things we dream of finding on eBay.
Homo sovieticus is dead and the Grans have been working in Paris for over two decades. History has spared them any need for intuitions into the larger uses of allegory. They are left with smaller, fussier ones. The result is a technically splendid exhibition that surrenders to a pictorial stratagem.
Photorealism, child of Pop and once the hot new thing, has mellowed into trompe l'oeil for Matrix fans. Both genres, superficially distinct, aim to fool the eye. The task of simulating a mechanical image gets easier all the time, thanks to scanners, projection devices, and ray tracer software by algorithm geeks.
Goodbye to primitive 35 mm. slides. Roberto Bernardi works from high-resolution digital film to produce images saturated with detail. Glass objects are arranged on a reflective surface and lighted to maximize scintillations. Despite passages of delicate beauty where transparent forms overlap, the dominant effect is sharp, glittering, cold and antiseptic.
"Eventi," 2003, with its bottles of Glen Grant single malt and Italian brandy, could pass as a liquor ad. Indeed, the entire ensemble suggests commercial photography more than a painter's love of his materials and motifs. Mr. Bernardi's work achieves the vacant perfection of computer-generated still lifes and the warmth of stainless steel. But for some, the attraction of photorealism lies precisely in technology's sovereignty over the act of painting.
Dickensian in temperament, David Levine wields a wicked pen. Part moralist, part entertainer, he lampoons presidents, political contenders, literati, and cultural icons with equal verve.
On view are 40 caricatures from The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and Time. The NYRB has been publishing Mr. Levine's widely imitated line drawings since 1963. Levine is a born satirist with a genius for portraiture, suggesting personality traits through exaggeration of telling details, observed and invented.
Architect Walter Gropius hunches uncomfortably against the geometry of one of his own Bauhaus chairs. Howard Stern's face emerges from a page crowded with hair, the luxuriance spreading over armfuls of money. Martha Stewart (c. 2000) is a blonde goose atop a mound of golden eggs. Likenesses are densely rendered with the bold, convincing pen strokes that have earned Mr. Levine the affectionate title "King of Cross Hatching."
None of Levine's hard-edged burlesques prepare you for the the sensuous satisfaction of his paintwork: the matte charm of his oil handling and the virtuoso refinement of his watercolors. Caustic humor gives way to unexpected gentleness in the paintings.
There is something romantic, even courtly, in Mr. Levine's approach to the human figure. He depicts ordinary people with great tact. Alert to color and mass, Mr. Levine assembles motley Coney Islanders into a rhythmic arrangement of contrasting patterns and tonalities. In "Boardwalk Ascent and Descent" (1966), the movement of crowds up and down stairs resonates with suggestions of Tiepolo's angels in flight. Vuillard hovers over Levine's paintings of garment district workers. Eakins breathes on the figure of an elderly man, leaning over his clothing press. Degas' seamstresses and washerwomen insinuate their presence, too.
Mr. Levine's aptitude for specificity, so crucial to caricature, is the mirror image of his talent for abstraction. An eye for essences is central to both exaggeration and abridgement. An adroit editor, he controls the course of pooling pigment to suggest omitted detail. "An Embroiderer" (2003) illustrates the power of watercolor in the hands of a painter responsive to the idiosyncrasies of the medium. "Back," a small watercolor of a seated nude, is a lovely evocation of the tones and weight of flesh with[ [using] the most economical means. A brooding image of the Coney Island roller coaster against an unlit sky is an elegy for more than seaside amusement.
Irreverent toward power and celebrity, Mr. Levine paints with deep regard for [art] history and for his betters. There are fewer of them than you might think.
These essays were first published in The New York Sun, March 11 (Levine) & 15, 2004
"David Levine: Escapes" at Forum Gallery,745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-355-4545).
"Elena & Michel Gran: Contemporary Masters of Trompe l'Oeil" at Hollis Taggart Galleries, 48 East 73rd Street, 212.628.4000.
"Roberto Bernardi: Spazi Infiniti" at Bernaducci. Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57th Street. 212-593-3797.
©2004 Maureen Mullarkey