Acid Girls

John Haber
in New York City

Alfred Leslie at the Computer

Jan Müller, Helen Verhoeven, and Echo Eggebrecht

After six weeks, I had not written a word about Alfred Leslie, because his new work made me so uncomfortable. It still does, and I am still not sure whether he should call that a compliment, but I think he would.

Women in art have been flattering men and making them uncomfortable for a long time. Feminists have identified portraiture with the male gaze. They have seen too many images of women as temptress or as she-devil, even as such men as Edouard Manet have made a woman's pain or self-assertion sexy. Alfred Leslie's Tabita, Francine, and Two Friends (courtesy of the artist, 2011–2012)These days, though, Leslie is not alone in putting both men and women on the spot. Jan Müller and Helen Verhoeven paints demon lovers right out of early Modernism. Closer to the graphic-novel present, Echo Eggebrecht as a woman has her own fancies and her fears, and who am I to say which is which?

With the computer, Leslie has found a medium for virtuosity that had to have been there for the taking, if only anyone had noticed. I still hardly know whether to like the prints, but I cannot overlook the challenge to what I should think. "Yes," he told Teri Tynes in 2002, where he could be speaking for others as well,"you can be a painter but you won't necessarily be an artist, just as you can be an artist and not necessarily a painter. You have to lose these boundaries you have imposed on your sensibility. Let them all come into conflict with each other. Let the war, as it were, your internal war, begin."

Cowboys, women, and realists

Alfred Leslie's eleven scenes close tightly on women, sitting or facing forward. Some are nude except for cheap jewelry, if not like for Tom Wesselmann the great American nude, some just as cheaply but not at all sparingly dressed, as if castoffs from flower children still littered the eastern edge of Soho. They flaunt their availability, but not exactly innocence or experience. More often than not, they pose together, as in a low-end brothel without the squalor. The only danger comes directly from them—and from the unnatural light that brings out their wide eyes and the cramped space. They do not belong in the same frame, and neither do you.

"The Lives of Some Women" shares its title with paintings from almost twenty years, ending in the 1980s. I could swear that at least one woman reappears after twenty years. Somehow, at eighty-four, Leslie is still painting and painting big, except that these are not oils but C prints. They are not photographs either, but digital paintings. The unjustified light source offers a clue to their assembly, and so do the handful of easel-scale prints, head shots of the same cast. Leslie starts with something from his own hand, then layers bodies and colors to create an unfamiliar, unsettling, but undeniably real place.

Looking back, one can see that same space in his abstractions, from the 1950s. For all their architecture akin Franz Kline and gesture akin to Willem de Kooning, one's eye runs up against real city walls—and so does the spattered paint. A 2004 show recovered Leslie's early work (and so I shall keep this review shorter), including videos of the Cedar Bar, artists, and poets, in collaboration with Robert Frank and Frank O'Hara. Manny Farber, the painter and critic, called Leslie back then a "pseudo-roughneck" and "Bronx cowboy abstractionist," but then Farber, who preferred Sam Fuller to Orson Welles, could have let slip a compliment, too. Leslie, however, moved on, and he helped create photorealism in 1961, with large-scale portraits in monochrome. When a fire consumed most of them in 1966, the same year that a freak accident killed O'Hara, he started again in color.

The distrust of the obvious extends to himself and to any hint, in his words, of "candy box sentimentality." Maybe that explains why a self-portrait stands out among the early grisailles, his belly clearly outgrowing his clothes. Others have highlights as sharp as x-rays, and one may find oneself looking, in vain, for anatomy. Maybe it explains, too, why a largely red palette followed, as if to announce its rawness. The portraits have a blank but ample background, reinforcing the subject's mass. When Leslie poses in front of one, arms crossed and head shaved, they seem like two of a kind.

Much as now, the cast looks straight ahead, whether seated or standing, naked or clothed. It can take a while to notice how naturally and even causally they pose. A collector in 1975 looks downright friendly but fiercely intelligent, her hands crossed over the arms of a chair, for all the light brutally staking out her face. Who would know that Leslie, a weight lifter, made her look much older than her years? Part of the game of exposure is also hiding, as with the frequent changes in style, and the artist has asked interviewers not to disturb the privacy of ex-wives or children.

From "second generation Abstract Expressionism" to realism, Leslie all but dared others to marginalize him, and too often they did. If a proper formalist needed a photorealist, one could always have Chuck Close, whose skill makes illusion itself the subject. If one needed pop culture, one had Robert Bechtle or James Rosenquist, with their air of billboard painting. If one needed Mannerism's twists, one had Philip Pearlstein's gaunt bodies on fancy rugs. Yet both Leslie and Close use the camera as an impetus to experiment, and both capture iconic personalities head on. They put the photography and the realism in photorealism.

Demon lovers

In barely half a mile, one could cross half a century as if nothing had happened. In fact, it could seem as if painting, or at least northern European painting, had hardly changed since Edvard Munch saw The Dance of Life on the eve of the twentieth century. One has the same big canvas, overpopulated with melancholy, desire, and women. One has the same moonlight, dark landscapes, and pale bodies uncertain where to stand. At the opposite extremes of Chelsea, starting with Jan Müller, two artists are not so much wrestling with demons as seeking them out. Indeed, Helen Verhoeven is still aspiring to them.

Actually, both came way too late for the midnight party of German Expressionism and "Degenerate Art," and both had an exacting journey that took them through the New York School. Müller turned nineteen the year he reached New York, where like Lee Krasner and Jane Freilicher he studied with Hans Hoffman. He could never forget childhood in Hamburg, in an anti-Nazi family, and the heart disease that was to end his life at only thirty-five, in 1958. He said that he could hear every tick of an artificial heart valve. Born in the Netherlands in 1974, Verhoeven divides her time between Berlin and New York, and she credits Willem de Kooning and Balthus for the mythic and comic strangeness of her women. Unlike their precursors, however, both give their women plenty to do.

Müller gives them "Faust and Other Tales." In Walpurgisnacht, their dreamlike motion attends as much to one another as to Faust, in white columns and acrobatic pyramids. In Temptation of Saint Anthony, they fly about at cross purposes, as if in need of an air traffic controller, but their outstretched arms express compassion—for the saint and for each other. They owe their flesh, simple outlines, and temptations as much to Music, by Henri Matisse in 1910, as to expressionism. Only a cleric seems immune to their red lips and dark hair, both shoulder length and pubic, and he has horns matching the red of his feet and the cross on his chest. He also has a white face much like their own, only flatter, rounder, and less convincing, like a grim snowman.

Verhoeven's women are going nowhere fast, but they take a certain pride in where they are now. They more or less obey the law of gravity, huddled or arms akimbo. They belong to quite a range of types, from puritan New England to reality TV, while somehow sharing the same confused rocks and sea. Where Müller's figures in green woods would look quite at home in a Book of Hours in Renaissance France, hers may seem to belong nowhere at all. The only thing they have in common is performing. Where his frontal figures exorcise one another, hers are exorcising fame and the viewer.

Her dark, pale, hard-edged palette may bring them closer to early Modernism than Müller's caked white and parallel streaks of deep color. It also brings them closer to the present, after years of abstraction, graphic novels, and mass media. She calls them "Stage Disasters," but do not blame them for the disaster. Even when naked, they have disrobed only a moment ago as part of the act. As with Matisse or reality TV, too, that act includes music. Second Movement (Acid Girls) alone sounds like the name of a band, and the housing way in the background could serve as a mark of homelessness or a venue for its next gig.

If nothing much has changed since Munch, think about why. Müller recalls expressionism's roots in literary and folk art traditions, while Verhoeven has to know that folk art and mythmaking are back, with a vengeance. Her smallest is also the most ragged, like Dana Schutz or Nicole Eisenman, and the heroine of Savage Lady (Little Monster Girl) grabs the mike. These are painters of lust and despair who keep their cool. They are painters with a premodern brush who stay up late and up-to-date. Amazing what can happen fifty years apart.

Home to the stars

Echo Eggebrecht's paintings, all just twelve by nine inches, look even smaller, but they hold possibilities. A Coca-Cola hangs sign above a bear rug, like a double offer of guilty comforts. And you should feel guilty, for the bear's spread arms and open mouth facing the viewer could be pleading. You would be pleading, too, if your pure white fur were stretched and pressed to the floor. But then a red curtain parts, to show snow globes from around the world, against a night sky filled with stars. Lovers may be absent, but not the demons.

Echo Eggebrecht's Coke (Horton gallery, 2012)The twenty paintings in "Probably Science" may look like illustrations for a children's book, and they never quite abandon their innocence. Rather, like Amy Wilson, they just wear it lightly. Remember, the bear might be saying, you cannot pass through the picture plane except in your imagination—and it would hurt me if you could. And maybe, just maybe, your imagination is enough. A living room, the setting of all her paintings, is a room of one's own, not to mention something that not every New York artist's apartment has. It is also the place to welcome guests, much like a painting.

The guests here have all since departed, except perhaps for you, and I cannot swear what carried them away. A tent sits before another night sky, not on the ground but on parquet strewn with paper hearts. A first-aid kit lies nearby, and no wonder. The tent looks ever so devoid of life, and I could swear that astronomical clouds are swirling into the shape of stunt cyclists and a rifle. On a lab desk, one drawer barely parted, the sink's two faucets come painfully close, in the shape of swans. Behind them someone has started in on an old-fashioned chalkboard, to add a mushroom cloud.

Naturally the guests got to play—but the games, too, hold both nostalgia and dangers. Maybe the sole remaining Twister on earth has survived a wild party. A map for Risk tells of some future mega-states out of a high-stakes gamble or a dystopia. A gumball dispenser sits atop a piano, much of its colored spheres already scattered to the floor. No one, of course, is banging out a tune. Still, the loose spots and occasional streaks of color, like the random white for stars, suggest an artist at play.

Eggebrecht shares the gallery with a more obviously personal account. Aaron McElroy covers a wall with snapshots, of himself and friends. Their size, low resolution, and white borders evoke another object of nostalgia, Polaroids. Like one well-known user of Polaroids, Robert Mapplethorpe, McElroy gives particular attention to human flesh, exposed or cut off. Overall, though, the display feels casual and light, with just enough confusion to hold attention while one sorts out the wall.

Eggebrecht's demons seem more real, although not to exclude that wider universe behind the curtain. A dog shares space with a telescope, and a meteor shower comes down like confetti. The gallery compares the paintings to Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, maybe for his fascination with science, immediate experience, and the thought patterns holding one back from appreciating them—or maybe just for the title. I thought, too, of the French philosopher's The Psychoanalysis of Fire, since these living rooms would surely allow a place in front of the fireplace to experience. Remember: every nightmare is also a dream.

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Alfred Leslie ran at Janet Borden through July 27, 2012, Jan Müller at Lori Bookstein through June 23, and Helen Verhoeven at Wallspace through June 23. Echo Eggebrecht and Aaron McElroy ran at Horton through January 6, 2013.

As noted in the separate review of Leslie's early work, since 2009 he has been arranging his life and work into a series of online artist books (and films). Tynes's interview appeared in Art Papers for July/August 2002, as "Multiplying Perspectives: Alfred Leslie and The Cedar Bar. She has a follow-up conversation on her own Web site for the new show.


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