Fragmenting the Form

Figureworks February 2004

Barry Steely, "Man in Pink" (2003) alkyds on canvas.

Before going to Figureworks Gallery, I had the fortunate experience of seeing Rebecca Stenn perform at the Joyce. Her company put on a playful dance and onstage musicians provided the score. The best moments came towards the end when the musicians ceased observing the dance from behind their instruments and began to take part. Unexpected scenes followed: a cellist feigned the murder of a dancer with his cello; a slight female slung the tattooed bassist over her shoulders. A bowstring flew across the stage and the drummer continued on, unperturbed in the background. The audience was transfixed as musicians struggled amid dancers gyrating to frenzied rhythms. Musicians, music, and dance were one as onlookers forgot themselves in the expectation of what might happen next.

Viewers have no such opportunity at Figureworks, where the work in Fragmenting the Form, a group show that includes a figurative painter, a sculptor and a photographer, bludgeons the viewer with its themes of dramatized sexuality and emotion. In a space far too small to show twenty-three works by three different artists, the work clashes as it vies for attention.

The painter, Barry Steely, has the advantage of intense chroma in his portraits of men. Steely takes colorful liberties with the planes of his subjects’ faces, allowing their pink fleshy forms to suggest all sorts of things, most often orifices and phallus. In "Grey Matters," perhaps the best of these paintings, Steely exhibits more reserve and balances his enthusiastic exploration of the face’s forms with the simply rendered dinner jacket and wavy gray hair sported by his sitter. In the worst of the paintings, "Man in Pink," Steely loses all sense of decorum and crowns his pink suited subject in a garland of roses, also pink.

The sculptor—Kasra Paydavousi—suffers from academicism, a state of mind that uses well-established technical and expressive tools as ideals to be single-mindedly pursued. As the titles "Ecstasy" and "Agony" suggest, his sculptures depict figures in over-dramatized positions of abandonment (chest and buttocks thrust out) and despair (knees and elbows hunched to the ground). The forms of the bodies are competently modeled, but never inventive.

It is the photographer’s sad fate to be hung in the foyer. There the viewer must lean over sofas and around pedestals to see the pictures of AJ Nadel, the most interesting work in the show. Evenly framed in hardwood and set behind glass, Nadel’s Polaroid emulsion transfers reveal scantily-clad female figures in what appear to be domestic environments. Nadel has found ways to scuff and blur his images, adding to a sense of nostalgic intimacy. The privacy of these women is not violated. They are somehow complicit in allowing the artist and the viewer to explore their worlds. The photographs have a documentary feel to them, despite the collage Nadel sometimes incorporates. This adds a touch of realism to Nadel’s work that is absent from the fanciful flights of Steely and Paydavousi.

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