The Human Comedy
in New York City
Gallery-Going, Spring 2005:
Robert Doisneau, Neo Rauch, and Amy Bennett
One remembers Robert Doisneau for one image, a couple kissing in public, her erect body curved back, as lithe and elegant as the city behind them. It resembles that archetypical movie romance—of a kiss, of Paris in black and white—that one feels almost ashamed to remember so fondly but cannot stop quoting. A gallery survey does everything to rescue Doisneau from a stereotype, but it reminds me of how, on film at least, a romance is always a comedy.
This spring in the galleries, painting and photography alike explore the human comedy. Running against the grain of much modern and postmodern art, Neo Rauch and Amy Bennett, too, take human relationships on an unusually intimate scale. Rather than shy away from mere anecdote, they get one imagining conflicts and desires that, on reflection, may never have unfolded. As in the movies, too, comedy can turn out quite dark indeed.
When it comes to fine art, realism traditionally demands something more serious. On the one hand, there lies the truth of vision. One has photography's perfect moment or the studious, even clinical reserve of painters from William Bailey to Philip Pearlstein. They seem at times to have sucked the very air out of the room along with accident or incident. No wonder art-school class exhibitions so often cling to the somber palette of the Ash Can school.
On the other hand, there lies the truth that purports to expose the human condition. One has political photography, "regarding the pain of others." One has painting after 9/11, whether politicians like it or not. One has the whole premise of much postmodern art, exposing art as a political institution. Even when a realist like Chuck Close adds conceptual touches that question the whole idea of turning back the curtain, that, too, makes a serious statement.
The artists under review here do not exactly settle for less. Rauch paints individuals as stereotypes left over from the Cold War. Bennett rips the face off buildings to see into the dynamics of suburban America. The same spring, as it happens, Sophie Calle either exposes her own lost loves or, perhaps, the very ability of art to turn lives into iconic images. However, they all do surprisingly little shouting. Unlike rough parallels in representations of European politics, in Eric Fischl's suburban nudes, or in other relatives of shock art, they challenge one to identify with the lives unfolding, much as in reading a short story.
Startlingly, even Doisneau's career extends some forty years beyond the love and kisses, and it ends with some very unromanticized color shots of lower-middle-class Paris. Then again, French cinema eventually introduced color to its brand of urban realism, too. Throughout, he remains rooted in his city and in people, and their movements seem momentous. Among his other better-known images, de Gaulle leads a celebration of the liberation. Everything from a pinball game to a crowd could stand equally well for a sexual awakening or a riot in progress. When Doisneau extends the shots of people kissing to a whole series, he democratizes intense feeling as well. An unshaven laborer shares a bar with a bride and groom, subsuming even class distinctions into the unfolding romance.
Doisneau belongs to an older world as well in his adherence to that perfect moment. It can mean that moment of triumph, of politics or the emotions, but also the esthetic moment. It includes the moment of the jogger in color, improbably lost in a canyon-like street. In its new space's inaugural show this past fall, Bruce Silverstein had a Doisneau that looked at first glance like an abstraction, the side of a white building interrupted geometrically by points of black. They, too, turned out to be people in that perfect moment, sitting on steps in the sun.
And Doisneau belongs to an older era in one last sense, of the movies. He uses the silence of a photograph to make photography into silent comedy. As the kissing couples multiply in number, they could represent the stages of a game. Men and women gape and gasp in the glass of a storefront. The jogger represents that precarious moment between stumbling and athletic grace. Then again, the French used to have a special affection for Chaplin, too.
Another European artist comes closer still to giving everything a political background, only to let real history slip away. If some artists report on a war zone, Neo Rauch grew up at everyone's favorite front in the Cold War. It seems to have served him well in taking up the culture wars in Chelsea. The Berlin Wall has fallen, leaving behind Alina Szapocznikow and the art of Eastern Europe, but we still have the High Line—not to mention the invisible wall of prestige surrounding Chelsea galleries.
In a month that combines the manic imagery of "Greater New York" and a Max Ernst retrospective, it must seem that Surrealism has never left New York. (How dare a gallery last year trace Mark Rothko's breakthrough year in turning away, to abstraction?) So why import more wild narrative all the way from the former East Germany? And where does a nation's history end and a personal fantasy begin?
Fortunately, Rauch has a good excuse: he grew up with the silliness, as a state imperative. His paintings could pass for Socialist Realism gone haywire or the latest in comic-book art. Yet he has just enough of the weirdness of German art since the Renaissance and the abrasiveness of an artist willing to steal from Salvador Dalí to keep one guessing what it all means. Could he actually care about the past, perhaps even the past foisted on him? Do these lives—or the lives of nations—amount to mere family quarrels after all?
Rauch calls his show Renegaten. The plural makes sense for an artist way too hot to be rebelling against much of anything. It also leaves one wondering whether the renegades inhabit his work or live in terror of it. The scenes have plenty of the stock footage of Eastern bloc culture and Western estheticism alike—the hearty workers struggling for existence, the artists hard at work representing them, and the artistes spending too much time in cafés to care. None, however, look heroic, and most seem a little too scary for one to keep laughing at them for long. The peasants seem on the point of eviscerating someone. The authorities, such as they are, have pretty much fled the premises.
Battered interiors, ruined buildings, and humans clinging to any source of warmth evoke a ruined city, and you will have to decide whom to blame for the ruins. If the Nazis do not serve well enough, you can always try Allied bombings, Soviet tyranny, the glorification of ruined chapels in German Romanticism, and all these guys in need of a shave. Daliesque touches add to the broken-down state of things. Interior walls flow into the chilly streets, rough clothing into the battered sky. With an artist named Neo-something, can another art movement be far away?
I cannot swear that this exists as more than fodder for yet another appropriation, as happens only months later at Zwirner thanks to Michael S. Riedel. I cannot swear that anything truly lies at stake here, other than the artist's own earnest bravura. I cannot swear which images arise from observation, which from a less than universal impulse, and which from the Rauch on automatic pilot. The very fact that I kept scratching my head makes me hope so, but I felt a real relief in turning elsewhere, to art that engages my own personal traumas.
A doll's house
When they say a house is not a home, they may have Amy Bennett in mind. Bennett navigates the space between the two, as well as between landscape and interior or between realism and fiction.
American art has spoken more of the land than of home. Perhaps only a country so ceaselessly on the move—or a tradition of landscape painting with such strong roots in Romanticism—could so often show people infiltrating a wilderness or navigating a metropolis. Where architecture appears, it, too, most often has aspired either to a wild grandeur or to a position on the edge between city and country. Where a community seems at home, it may well gather in a church, as with American Regionalism, or in the imagination. When painting envisions a house, the viewer may find it difficult to reach or treacherous to penetrate. Bennett has ties to all those American myths, no doubt, as well as to academic realism, but with a calm that allows her to focus on the house within a landscape and to find the human stories within.
When I first saw her paintings, they literally had the roof torn off, all the more unsettling for showing no traces of loss or turmoil. The clear sunlight and matte yellows, grays, and greens suggested a calm, summer day. They also showed her keen interest in landscape, as well as real memories of suburbia without cynicism or nostalgia. The walls and driveways supplied a dominant, detached geometry that seemed to have a lot to do with painting and little to do with illustration. However, they also created barriers between people. One could try to enter these lives as casually as one entered their homes, but one could not as easily bring their stories together.
Her new works already suggest a certain unease with her formula. The wide-open interiors she depict still benefit from the comical precision of an architectural model or a dollhouse, and in fact she has an oversized wooden model in her studio. Presumably it does not have odes to Barbie from John Currin hiding within it, although a pan across it might make a cool video. However, she shifts the vantage point to get closer both to naturalism and to her subjects. Think of Gregory Crewdson, perhaps, but without the appeals to the truth of photography, the expensive setups of Hollywood staging or of Jeff Wall, the evident nostalgia of Normal Rockwell or Frank Capra, or even unnatural light. This is a painterly eye of American daylight transported inside.
The largest new works maintain the frontality and the grid, but by removing a wall instead of the ceiling. The smallest take a vantage point within a single room, although still with the awareness of further views within. Others look at a house from a three-quarter view, with most of the walls intact, leaving the only hint of her earlier concerns in the peculiarity of furniture on the lawn, as if the house had been turned inside-out, and rational enough views through the windows that may just happen to pass through to the landscape beyond. In dropping the aerial view, she flattens things out less, attending to how furniture creates the space of a room. The new work also put more emphasis on interior lighting, which, for all its artificial sources, in practice produces darker, softer colors. The surfaces also call more attention to themselves and to the creation of atmosphere, with layers of resin that contribute a ghostly perfection, as if the view into the interiors took place through yet one more layer of polished glass.
They continue to set up narratives of unease. A shattered window has only an unspoken history, and the person unconscious on a couch has no excuse, not to mention no face. The man bringing his wife breakfast in bed seems like an intruder, and the woman upstairs, sitting slumped over and barely awake, seems more than half responsible for her vulnerability. I like best by far these large and small pictures, where both the formal elements and the increasing atmosphere make any worries about excessive literalism irrelevant. The three-quarter views come too close to plain old representations of yard sales rather than genuine explorations of transience. Still, amid the cartoon elements of today's art trends and the increasing remoteness of formalist dismissals, I cannot put an eye this penetrating down as "mere illustration."
Robert Doisneau ran at Bruce Silverstein through February 12, 2005, Neo Rauch at David Zwirner through June 18, and Amy Bennett at Linda Warren in Chicago through May 28.