Martha Meyer Erlebacher at Forum Gallery
The dangers of literalism; plus, some
last words on Susanna Coffey
IF YOU WERE RAISED ON ELIHU VEDDER,
then this is the show for you. If not, you might find yourself
averting your eyes from figure compositions that ought to have
been an embarrassment to paint.
Erlebacher's gift is for matter-of-fact description, a quality
that stands her in good stead as a painter of still lifes. But
it is a hindrance to the kind of mythopoesis she strains after
in narrative work. Her skills and sympathies are better suited
to trompe l'oeil than to story-telling. She serves herself best
with the still lifes on view here. The successful figures in
this exhibition are those in which a single model is set anonymously
on a draped platform, back to the viewer, then lit and handled
like any other nature morte. There are passages of real
beauty in Erlebacher's paint. Yet the overall impression is
one of silliness and misplaced ambition.
Three Cats at Dusk is a working compass to Erlebacher's
difficulties as a narrative painter. Three air-brushed women—pussies,
oh my!—languish on a rock set against the wastes of an
unspecified landscape that looks borrowed from Odd Nerdrum's
last show. Skies that never were are done in a ruddy labial
rose. One female arches her upper torso heavenward in a gesture
that suggests impalement on a dildo. A second is forced into
an unnatural crouch to serve compositional needs. Another is
laid flat for the same reason. Then there's the obligatory spread
of classical drapery. Rose-red, It flows to the ground from
under the haunches of the sweetheart transfixed on … whatever.
At an asking price of $35,000, it is clearly intended as the
exhibition's show-stopper. So it is.
Add to this The Tarantula Nebula. On offer is a naked—no
drape this time—man and woman assuming the missionary
position on center stage somewhere at the edge of the planet.
Real action is overhead in the Milky Way. Shooting nebulae explode
in marvelous colored dots all over the canvas. This is no ordinary
f**k, folks; this is galactic fusion. By now, the equation of
fireworks and sex is as haggard as a cinematic train roaring
into a tunnel. But these are compositions for an audience without
memory. And without a grasp of art that goes deeper than market
price. What else could explain all these implausible, listless
women languishing in the buff near one shore or another, resembling
something beached, washed in with the tide, less lively than
The entire shining ensemble of multi-figure compositions evokes
the tact and polish of that other tasteful old venue, Playboy.
And why not? An approximate formula—part exoticism, part
kitsch—worked for Vedder. It still works, albeit with
an Viking slant and more tactile surface, for Nerdrum. No reason
a woman should not have a go at the old game.
More worrying is Erlebacher's Adam and Eve (The Return).
Once past the fine foreground figure of Adam, bent to the ground
in remorse, the painting sinks into the dangers of literalism.
A wide-eyed Eve lies supine across a rock slab (the same one
supporting Three Cats on the next wall). Here comes another
blasted landscape, this one on loan from Vedder's The Questioner
of the Sphinx. Under a pitiless sky, an incongruous trail
of long white drapery covers Eve's crotch, providing a spot
of relief from the punitive gloom. A fading glow, visible within
a crevice in the ground, suggests Eden as some sort of Middle
Earth from which Adam and Eve have been propelled upward and
The literalness of the depiction makes comedy of Eve's loin
cloth. [Did she work a loom in Eden? Was she given time to pack
up her linen or did the angel hand her a valise?] Worse, it
snuffs all life out of the ancient story, one of the few cultural
remnants still recognizable by all of us. The Genesis tale is
painted in outmoded, fundamentalist terms, as if Eden had longitude
and Adam and Eve were historical characters. Erlebacher approaches
the myth as though it were a moment in history, tacked to the
wall like a moth and just as dead. Another still life.
Biblical mythos is as trustworthy—or no more untrustworthy—for
illuminating the ground of our condition as the modern mythologies
of Freud and Jung. But expulsion from Eden is no longer creditable
as the loss of some idyllic place, all date palms and fair weather.
It has relevance to us moderns only if it is greeted from within
and retold for our time. Our own Paradise Lost is Western civilization's
ancestral faith in the meaning of man and of history. To be
east of Eden is to carry our chosen despair with us. It is a
cultural burden, not a material one. Despair flourishes in the
rich, rotted undergrowth of plenty as surely as it exists in
squalor and wasteland. Adam and Eve's predicament, as depicted
by Erlebacher, could be fixed with a Swiss Army knife and a
The empurpled prose of the press release ["Lust, hunger,
greed, heat, cold, beauty, horror: all are here. … With
formidable intellect, amazing skill and tremendous talent, Erlebacher
enables a journey to a place where our identities are drawn
and defined."] is less appropriate than an observation
once made by Wendell Berry: "The significance—and
ultimately the quality—of the work we do is determined
by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part."
Erlebacher lacks purchase on the story she inhabits.
Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York NY
10151 Tel. 212.355.4545
SOME OF YOU HAVE COMPLAINED that
I misinterpreted Susanna Coffey's work. That she is heir to
the crown of Lucian Freud, Paula Rego, John Wollaston, et alia,
and I just don't get it. Or, as one reader put it, how could
I possibly complain about such a good painter?
Similar questions have exhibited more spleen than judgment.
Certain readers have completely missed my stated admiration
for Coffey's craftsmanship. Indeed, that was the crux of my
complaint. Too whom much is given . … But perhaps the
point was too subtle. Let me restate things more bluntly: It
is a shame to see a painter so gifted using her gifts merely
to manufacture a product line. Coffey's exhibitions are episodes
in merchandising. They belong to the history of marketing, not
art. [Colgate with gardol; Colgate with fluoride; Colgate with
peroxide for whitening; Total Colgate for gingivitis.]
Any equation Between Susanna Coffey and Lucian Freud is superficial,
confusing manner with substance. Freud's work is hardly a series
of frozen mug shots in different flavors. Reference to the 18th
century John Wollaston [a British-Americian portrait painter
known for homogenizing his subjects' features and for theatrical
backdrops] is the kind of inapt stretch that publicists use
to lend historical patina to new brass. Coffey risks nothing
beyond the conventions of a single head—her own—viewed
straight on. To hold this static one-note up against the complex,
dynamic inventiveness of Paula Rego, as some have, makes no
Several respondents project their own politics onto Coffey's
backdrop of fireworks, insisting that it refers to the bombing
of Iraq. Yet there is no evidence within the paintings themselves
that these lovely conflagrations refer to Iraq any more than
to Armageddon or—since some readers like to throw history
into the pot—the Great Fire of London. Coffey is too coy
to commit herself. But even if these could be assigned a specific
meaning, et alors? It is a serious, if common, fallacy
to confuse the significance of an art work with the significance
of its real life referent.
In the end, dear readers, I hold to my previous comments. Great
thanks to those of you who agreed and took time to say so. Thanks,
too, to those of you who took issue. Conversation is always
Maureen Mullarkey � November, 2003
This review also appears on ArtCritical.