Myth and its Discontents
Dances of Death at Tatischeff Gallery; mawkish grown-ups at M.Y. Prospects
Engraved in cultural memory, the danse macabre is an inheritance from popular woodcuts of the late Middle Ages. By the 15th century, familiar sermons on human perishability and the frailty of earthly glory had crystallized into a single hortatory image: The Dance of Death, in which a skeleton leads the living away.
Medieval minds were fond of mortal reflections; ours are not. It is interesting to see how a contemporary exhibition interprets a theme immortalized by Guyon Marchant and Holbein. On view at Tatistcheff Gallery are nine works, some made expressly for the show. All are related to the theme by threads of morbidity but most ignore the ritual iconography.
Oleg Neishtadt’s “Dance of Death” (2003-05) fulfills the motif with a raucous 3-canvas frieze, a landlubbers Ship of Fools: motley urban types who drink, kiss and cavort their way behind a skeletal piper. Unhappily, Neishtadt is a garish painter; his color sneers at the trope’s sober purpose. Timothy Woodman’s “Tornado” (1985), an irreverent scrap metal assemblage of disaster, is askance of the theme but wonderfully so. People, houses, cars, furniture and bicycles tumble through the air like the damned spilling into a Netherlandish hell. Dominating the collapse is a large white bird with wings outspread, recalling the holy dove of a medieval Annunciation scene. It hovers as if in mockery of even the possibility of benediction in the face of nature’s caprice.
Thom Hall’s “Transfiguration” (2005) exemplifies the pitfalls of free-floating sincerity. Mr. Hall bypasses the communicative scaffolding of a danse macabre to commemorate dead friends his own way. A naked male cadaver arches backward on a slab, pubis visible in profile. A snarling dog floats overhead, belly forward and hind legs splayed, canine genitals echoing the human ones. An indistinct woman climbs a ladder (Ascension, anyone?) while another naked youth leaps as if to score a basket. Is that toothy dog the hell-hound Cerberus minus his other two heads, or a grief-crazed pet? Either way, sympathetic intentions are undercut by idiosyncrasy. Myth, by definition, is communal; attempts at private ones leave the viewer unmoved.
Milet Andrejevic’s allegorical narrative “Diana and Acteon” (1984) is the painting I most wanted to see. Andrejevic (1926 - c. 1984) exhibited with Mark di Suvero, Lucas Samaras and George Segal in the Green Gallery in the late 1950s. Beginning in geometric abstraction, he veered into neo-classicism in the 1970s and became part of Robert Schoelkopf’s stable, a mecca for young representational artists until the late 1980s. Andrejevic was an honored exponent of classical themes rendered in modern terms.
How much less persuasive his translation seems today. This particular egg tempera painting looks unfinished, missing the characteristic brilliance and perfection of his technique. More seriously, its mythological reference is a ceremony empty of belief. Looking at it now, I thought of George Steiner’s comment in The Death of Tragedy: “Where the dead gods have been summoned back to the modern footlights, they have brought with them the odor of decay.”
In the ancient myth, the goddess Diana punishes Actaeon for an innocent intrusion by turning him into a stag to be hunted and slaughtered by his own dogs. The tale testifies to the tragic brevity of heroic life and the wantonness of gods who punish men in excess of their guilt. Andrejevic’s Diana is dressed in running clothes, stretching her legs in Central Park as Actaeon inadvertently wanders by. The Manhattan skyline, stand-in for Mt. Olympus, is visible in the distance. Modern dress drains the myth of tragedy. These days, Diana’s wrath would more likely express itself in a sexual harassment suit, lawyers switched for murderous dogs. Another codicil would be added to hostile workplace doctrine and Actaeon, fined and humiliated, would remain intact.On the evidence here, myth is in ruins and the mock horrors of Halloween have stilled the shudder of the old death-dance. The worm and the reaper can be played for laughs, the laughter not a defiant trespass on sacred ground but merely flip and ironic. Or aestheticized past the point of pathos.
Children are never puerile. That distinction attaches to adults smitten with their inner child, encouraging the little poppet to instruct the rest of us in man’s estate. What matters in this show is not individual works but the common misuse of childhood as a platform for self-indulgent sententiousness. Popular in Chelsea, the syndrome refuses to go away.
Katherine Desjardins deconstructs coloring books to reveal “their underlying political ideologies and/or social and psychosexual tensions.” The upshot is yet more coloring books, filled in with lollipop yellows and bubble-gum pinks. Marcus Kenney frets about the power of adults over children. His collage of youngsters playing around a campfire includes hidden adults villainously monitoring their activities. To Mr. Kenney, clueless about what the young are capable of without adult supervision, this is an image of adult oppression. Someone should send him Lord of the Flies.
Kojo Griffin’s drawings—portraits of the artist as a young mess—derive from his experience as “a chubby, depressed and introspective child.” These difficulties “heightened his sensitivity to pain” and insured inclusion in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Moira Fain, too, suffered a troubled childhood. Her flea-market assemblages of “animal protection metaphors” function as charms to help overcome her demons from the 1950s, still nagging after all these years. (Ponder the implications of animal protection and you begin to worry.) Karen Moss disapproves of playing Cowboys and Indians and is against wars, especially those her own side won.
Do you need to know more?
“Dances of Death” at Tatistcheff Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 212-627-4547).
“Childhood Revisited” at M.Y. Art Prospects (547 West 27th Street, 212-268-7132).
These reviews appeared first in The New York Sun, July 7, 2005.
Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey