by Jason Rosenfeld
MARLBOROUGH GALLERY | JANUARY 9 – FEBRUARY 3, 2018
The powerful and monumental paintings in Vincent Desiderio’s ninth show with Marlborough Gallery since 1993 reveal his continued fascination with the history of figurative art and a mucky pleasure in pushing copious amounts of oil around a surface. The twelve recent works feature dramatic chiaroscuro, convoluted bodies, and surreal subject matter. They delve into a variety of themes and genres, concluding with a ripping manifesto of a painting titled Pontormo in Hell (2016) that signals a compellingly new and kaleidoscopic visuality in his art.
In its seemingly straightforward depiction of mostly unclad male and female bodies arrayed along a curving precipice, Bathers (2017) calls to mind the idyllic fêtes galantes of Jean-Antoine Watteau and the crisp outlines of tawny skin en plein air in Thomas Eakins, blended with the fleshy facture of Manet and Jenny Saville, the tonality of Arnold Böcklin, the misty rainbow atmospherics of Maxfield Parrish landscapes, and the penchant for vertiginous vistas in Frederic Edwin Church. At the same time, it proposes less canonical references, like the purportedly Teutonic perfection of fit bodies in works by Adolf Ziegler—a favorite of that other, more infamous Adolf—and the stylish verve of American illustrators such as Robert E. McGinnis (b. 1926). The figures stand against a background of purple mountains’ majesty and on a cliff that, on closer inspection, is revealed to be the apex of a giant statue of a sleeping Buddha.
Significance is slippery by design in Desiderio’s works. They often seem contemporary manifestations of the Victorian “problem picture,” realist oils exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London by the likes of John Collier (1850–1934) that challenged audiences to puzzle out their narratives. Working out the meaning in Bathers depends on comprehending how it is that these people seem to think they are going for a dip while at such dizzying heights. This “problem” is exacerbated by the fact that the Rückenfiguren are deprived of anything to look at in the murky mists below. But unlike problem pictures, in which a solution was discernible, the conflicting references and forms speak to an approach to figuration wherein forms are recognizable and grounded in an amalgamated tradition, but resolved meaning lies calculatedly just out of reach. In this way, Desiderio seeks to find an equivalent to the complex coding of abstract painting in his naturalistic figuration.
As in recent mural-sized abstracted pictures by Cecily Brown, Theseus (2016), Desiderio’s 14-foot long centerpiece, references French Romantic shipwreck paintings by Delacroix and Géricault, with their masses of distressed figures huddling on lurching vessels. Desiderio retains the reams of pulsating and tortured flesh, and their sublime anxiety, but removes the boats. The title seems to reference Plutarch’s metaphor of Theseus’s continually rebuilt ship—a philosophical question regarding the difference between the original and its replica. In Desiderio’s all-over composition of interchangeable, interlocking appendages and art historical references, such questions become an issue of artistic identity. But interspersed among Desiderio’s charnel house of white nudes are monstrous insects and sea monsters, as if a hellish painting by Bosch had been subjected to radiation experiments in the 1950s and the Flemish master’s beasts came to gigantic, creepy life. Disturbingly, it implies a cross-species eroticism, a languid bestiality marked by limbs that read as phalluses, while the genitalia is largely occluded and the stuporous people appear post-coital or merely dead. The sensual human/beast themes of Guillermo del Toro’s current celebrated film, The Shape of Water, which updates Cold War-era horror movies for our own anxious age, find an echo here; however, in Theseus individuality and the possibility of bliss are denied—there is no love, no connection, no community.
Two further highlights in this show include a seeming outlier: Duomo (2017) is an extraordinary, 13-foot-wide, tightly cropped view of the midsection of the north side of Arnolfo de Cambio’s delightfully gothic polychrome marble facade of Florence’s most famous edifice. The second is the aforementioned Pontormo in Hell, a cacophonous sermon in symbolic form. Centered in the image is a large detail of the face of Jesus from Pontormo’s Deposition (1525–8) in the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicità, Florence—one of the most soulful expressions of grief in the history of art. It is flanked by a variety of transformed images: Ingres’s Angelica; a photograph of the young Picasso; Guy Fawkes masks made famous in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (1988–9); the skull from Holbein’s Ambassadors (1533) in the National Gallery of London. These are all stretched vertically—as in funhouse mirrors—and laid out rhythmically, not out of sync with the frieze of bodies that appears in Theseus or the architectural details in Duomo. Heavy black outlines and torqued triangular forms also recall Lee Krasner’s paintings beginning in the mid-1950s, in which she cut up earlier canvases and drawings and collaged them into her jagged and rhythmic compositions. In a sense, Desiderio is doing the same with his references to other artists—mingling symbolic forms, planting Pontormo’s Mannerist deceased Saviour in the center, and weaving a shrill hell from his own fervid imagination. It is a gripping work that rejects his usual naturalist figuration. He says he painted it in a week.
From afar, Desiderio’s works are marvels of complicated composition and chiaroscuro. Up close, his drawn-out battles with the canvases are evident, and the built-up, clotted, encrusted, and scraped facture is far from the elegance in Titian, Velázquez, Millais, Sargent, or even de Kooning. It most resembles the unattractive surfaces of late Courbet. But unlike the Frenchman, Desiderio is after a realism of the mind, one removed from seduction or delight. It represents his own struggle with symbolic figuration, grounded in long looking at the world. He attempts to undo vision itself from the codes by which we have been taught to see. Like Philip Guston, Desiderio long ago moved along the uncommon trajectory from abstraction to figuration; but unlike Guston, he has not developed a new visual language. Pontormo in Hell is a productive gesture in that direction. It changes the optical terms while channeling many of the same figurative pictorial influences. Here the metaphor of Theseus’s fabled paradoxical ship sinks. Pontormo in Hell signals a way to break from the past and craft a new type of vessel from those well-worn planks.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.