Cheim & Read | January 15 – February 14, 2015
“It’s an expression of the idea that nothing occurring in time gets completely lost: even dreams and fantasies are salvageable, though only in decaying pieces.”
Some of the most striking colors to be found in the natural world exist solely as counterparts to death and decay. Here and there, the lately living or slowly fading are ushered beyond the pale by richly-hued molds and parasites that unfurl in balloons and waves of radiant rot. In such cases, the act of passing away generates its own kind of beauty. The same, it would seem, applies to the less tangible but no less real memories and fantasies of Copenhagen-based artist Tal R. When recalled, a moment imperfectly remembered becomes an occasion for something new to bloom; when translated from sketch to painting, details fade, happily consumed by riots of color. The images that comprise Altstadt Girl are testament to this, and together stage a display as luminous and engrossing as they come.
For this, his second exhibition at Cheim & Read, Tal R has peeled out a series of paintings that are bizarre but can be relied upon: dreamy depictions of ripe, bright interior spaces inhabited by female figures rendered in simple strokes and rounded tones. The works are completed either in oil, for a more physical effect, or raw pigment and fast-drying rabbit skin glue, which retains an airy transparency that boasts a slight, subtle sparkle. Leaning heavily on the pillars of his high-modernist forebearers (Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and Modigliani), Tal R employs these media to explore the inherent awkwardness of the ingénue, furnishing the viewer with yet another opportunity to observe her in the domestic habitat, in various states of undress and repose. But to suppose the work is only excavating an obsolete aesthetic style is to miss its cheeky thrust. The sitters—mostly strangers and casual acquaintances the artist encountered while living in the Altstadt (“old town”) district of Dusseldorf—are less the focal point than they are merely the byproducts of their total environment. They stand and smoke and recline alongside pots, pans, picture frames, knickknacks, and textiles that all carry the same weight, each constituted and held in place by some frenzied internal logic of stripes, patterns, and planes. It is difficult to tell if this is more of a dis or a liberation.
The strongest image, and the most mature, is the title piece “Altstadt Girl” (2014). Lying on her side, one hand under her cheek and the other curled up behind her head to hold back thick multi-colored ribbons of hair, she reminds you of Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932) but without the vanity. Her face is a mask of navy modeled with strokes of vermillion, dusty yellow, and Tal R’s signature pink; her bare chest and left arm are deep orange rimmed in ruddy brown, while the arm and hand above her head are black. The variables in the equation that is her body do not match up, but manage to solve themselves nicely. What looks like her right arm could just as easily be a pillow, or nothing at all. Pseudo-geometric segments of lilac, indigo, burgundy, and buttercream float around the girl, wedging her into place. The sense of confinement, combined with the bulky flatness and severe tilt of the scene, push the viewer back outside the frame. This is a painting about the inwardness of the body, one that outsiders are not privileged to occupy for very long (though that does not mean you won’t want to try).
Moving around the room, the images swing from the weird and carnivalesque to the stiff and mannered, often falling somewhere in between. Favorite moments include the vertical raccoon’s tail of pink cigarette smoke that commands “Rosa Smoke” (2013) like an abstracted vulva; the absence of a line to delineate the figure’s face in “The Yellow” (2014), letting the lumpy mauve of her skin merge directly with the acid yolk of the background; the tender interplay of bold aquamarine and earthy teal on the bed that supports the prostrate “Train Drivers Daughter” (2014); and the thin, raw band of drips left uncovered at the base of “The Shower” (2014). Also notable is the delightfully goofy convolution of lowercase “t” and capital “R” that demarcate the artist’s signature on each of his sketches. These moments of unmediated gaucheness are what keep the art, and especially the 27 preparatory sketches, from tipping too far toward either tradition or twee. Instead of fading into black, they reveal a breaking down of and burrowing into reality, an imagined space alive with color where nothing is quite correct but everything feels just right even so.