The Human Figure: Presence or Decoration?
Vincent Desiderio at the Marlborough; Raymond Han’s Still Lives at Forum Gallery

Figure painting claims greater gravity and issues a tougher challenge than other genres. At its most humane, figuration asserts the primacy of life over the painter’s world of forms. Vincent Desiderio brings to the human figure grace of hand and, rarer still, grace of mind. Steeped in suggestion, his works are moral allegories. Realistically painted subjects function as signs whose meaning reveals itself to those responsive to the enigmas of the lived life.

Woman in White Dress

Desiderio conveys the sorrow of living without sentimentality, morbidity or anger. Contemplative Distance, 2002, is a triptych balancing portraits of two broken men. One carries the marks of chronic pituitary disorder; the other bears the stigmata of Down’s Syndrome. Both are greeted with unfailing tact, their humanity ascendant over the mortifications of disability and disfigurement. Here, as in the finest of Desiderio’s work, nothing is in vain. Even the fetal x-ray of Academy, 2001, seems a formal gesture of salutation to the mortality we share with the rest of the organic world.

Allegory of Painting, 2003, builds a contemporary pietá from studio clutter. The artist cradles his brain damaged son with infinite tenderness. Surrounded by the sacramentals of his craft—optical devices, frames, photos, books, tools for making and viewing art—his attention belongs only to the child. All focus is on the limpid flesh of the boy and his bandages. White as the winding cloth in a medieval crucifixion, they simultaneously conceal and highlight his wounds. There is no bravura here. The painting is classical, not in its subject, but in its sanity and reticence. Its discretion is rooted in Desiderio’s own humility before the irreducible worth of this one frail life.

Allegory of Painting

Only one painting strays from the source of his strengths. The inflated Pantocrator, 2002, is a grandiloquent tour de force, clever rather than convincing. The domination of space and of women, too, combine in a giant triptych better suited to the headquarters of Lockheed Martin than the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art which acquired it.

Much more compelling is the magnificent Cockaigne, 1993-2003, an ingenious echo of Peter Bruegel’s Land of Cockaigne, 1576. A monumental welter of art books scatters around a table covered with the shards of a meal. Pages fall open to paintings, a rollicking jumble of masters from the Florentines to the moderns. Human presence is insinuated though none is visible. Bones and crumbs—of art and food—are all we see. The pantagruelian feast is finished but what a romp while it lasted! It is a stunning performance, witty and cautionary.

White Dress, 2003, deserves mention for the incandescent beauty of it. So too, the luminous skull of Isthmus, 2000, unsettling in its delicacy. Overall, this is work that commands our gratitude. If he resists the pretensions of gigantism, Desiderio will earn his place among the masters he reveres.

Marlborough, 46 West 57th Street, New York NY 10019 Tel. 212.541.4900.


Raymond Han is an accomplished still life painter, adept at depicting expensive things for expensive people: the just-so vase, exquisite china, exotic flowers. His current exhibition handles the human figure like any other still life. Han’s empathy with his subjects extends no deeper than their totemic value. These are images of class, psychologically vacant objects that nod to the good taste of the audience.


Matthew & Alexandra, 2003, offers bloodless props for a yuppie mail order catalog. Matthew is wan and bored. Chic Alexandra sits on the floor in her Manolo Blahniks, a signal that she never has to run for a bus. No furniture appears. The couple inhabit a genteel geometry: the circle of a mirror above, the rectangle of a portfolio below. The painting, like much else on view, is a greyed-down simulation of good breeding.

Nudity is a fact that figure painters must face on occasion. Han defuses the subject by pretending not to look. Flora, 2003, presents a sleeping female nude, composed with the same artificiality as the huge vase of lilies and amaryllis dominating the canvas. Here is a flower arrangement in two species, floral and human. Han’s male nudes, Iannis I & II , 2003, are posed discreetly sideways. No display of family jewels in the living room, please.

Han prefers artifice to living bodies. Indigo Slip, 2003, is a mannered riff on Balthus’ disquieting Alice, 1933, whose slip drops beneath one breast. Balthus’ figure is unconcerned by her own deshabille and exposure. Han’s model, by contrast, coyly lets down one strap, controlling the peep. Here is a single bared breast for the Better Sort. What could be finer.

The triptych Three Women, 2001-2, is another tease. In the first panel, the model stands in her gown. In the second, she raises it to reveal—what else?—a thong. You can almost hear, “Take it off!” The third panel gets to the point, frontal nudity. But instead of the frisson of nakedness, it is oddly funny. Shaved to fit the thong, her pubic hair calls to mind Hitler’s mustache. A Duchampian absurdity maims the image.

The double painting, Rotation (2003), hints at what Han might do if he were engaged by his subject. The figure, a darksome young man, has a veracity that sets it apart. This single portrait is endowed with life, something distinct from banal imitation of physiognomy.

Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10151 Tel. 212. 355.4545.

A version of both reviews appeared in “Gallery Going,” The New York Sun, February 5, 2004.

�Maureen Mullarkey
February 2004

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