The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

Maureen Dougherty: Borrowed Time

Installation view: <em>Maureen Dougherty: Borrowed Time</em>, Cheim & Read, New York, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.
Installation view: Maureen Dougherty: Borrowed Time, Cheim & Read, New York, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.

On View
Cheim & Read
Borrowed Time
July 11–September 16, 2023
New York

Since its formation in 1963, the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture has instilled in its pupils the importance of technical painterly prowess. Maureen Dougherty is no exception: following a brief foray at Carnegie Mellon University, she enrolled in the Studio School, where she was particularly taken by colorist principles and narrative painting. Over the last few decades, Dougherty’s penchant for colorism came to dominate, her canvases increasingly veering towards abstract decorative motifs reminiscent of Robert Kushner’s geometric patterns. Where she felt the pang of narrative’s tug, she pivoted to the moving image, working with documentary filmmakers. But, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine, Dougherty re-engaged her figurative roots. As she returned to the Studio School’s primary anchor, the human form, narrative followed closely behind.

Maureen Dougherty, <em>Boxer,</em> 2023. Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.
Maureen Dougherty, Boxer, 2023. Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.

It is no surprise that the recently completed works on display in Borrowed Time, with titles that reference Golden Age Hollywood cinema, service storytelling. Entering the exhibition, the first gallery room’s walls are dotted with singular portraits. Where the subsequent rooms are filled with sprightly fêtes galantes and art deco dandies gazing into one another's eyes, wrapped in a kind of cold sexual poise, this first room exclusively offers waist-up portraits. Despite the frenzied brushwork, the portraits, with mute eyes and lips, are hardly expressionist. Dougherty’s ice-grey backgrounds prod her imagined subjects (notably, Dougherty never works from live models) into a dreamlike vacuum. Dougherty foregoes chiaroscuro to light her figures from underneath, using monochromatic backgrounds to blanket space with silence. She attempts with painting what Barbara Hepworth actuated in sculpture: eliminating information by simplifying space.

Upon close study, we find that the portrait subjects of Beautiful School Boy (2023), Young Poet (2023), and Green Jumper (2022) are a bit off-kilter. Half-shrugged shoulders and asymmetric ears make for preternatural poise, echoing the locales-from-nowhere these figures occupy. Dougherty’s efforts are sometimes even too muted, and one gets the sense that she is not ready to commit to the uncanny, preferring only to suggest. Furthermore, the simultaneous commitment to both the uncanny and spatial simplification ultimately compromises the effectiveness of the latter. Nevertheless, one particularly strong work, Boxer (2023), overshadows the rest. The figure’s bouldering shoulders, at odds with his shriveled head and dainty pursed lips, crown a pair of wide-spread legs. Where he would be perched on a ring stool, preparing to spar, he floats, the malachite background a-brush with glimpses of light.

Maureen Dougherty, <em>Clementine</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.
Maureen Dougherty, Clementine, 2021. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.

The subsequent rooms, where canvases are now crowded with narrative scenes, reveal Dougherty’s arsenal of artistic influences: Beckmann's lighting, Katz’ flattening, Beardsley’s decadence, and Marie Laurencin's roseate palette. Here Dougherty pounces on the uncanny more decisively, a fact evinced by the blear-faced blonde woman of Clementine (2021). Her breasts lay bare, peeking through holes cut in her shirt, and her ghastly wrinkled smile is barely perceptible. She is joined by a young lady sitting atop a painted plate of citrus fruit. Dougherty claims that these imaged scenes have less to do with symbolism than formal reverie. But often her play with slightly uncanny proportions undermines the possibility of emphasizing pure painterly forms. The dance of her composition is thus often of secondary import. Yet, at her best, Dougherty’s Matisse-esque colorism, in its dedicated return to a cold cast of gray-blues illuminated by cantaloupe-and-apricot reds, goads her paintings and their frilly entourage beyond the bounds of meek portraits and proportional aberrations.

Several paintings attest to Dougherty’s concern with social media’s stranglehold on performance and authenticity. Young Asian with Pansy and iPhone (2023), for example, features a standing nude boy cradling the titular flower and his smartphone ever-so-softly. Rear View (2023) similarly presents a pallid-faced woman admiring her rump, our off-canvas gaze assuming the tacit role of the mirror. Rear View provides a bit of comic relief, but these topical allusions to social media and the digitally diffuse construction of the self feel somewhat flat-footed, never fully cohering.

Maureen Dougherty, <em>Veronese at the Frick</em>, 2023. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.
Maureen Dougherty, Veronese at the Frick, 2023. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read.

Much more compelling are works in which Dougherty frees herself from commentary, dissolving three-dimensional space while retaining some of its particulars. Veronese at the Frick (2023), for instance, is exemplary. Dougherty here appropriates Veronese’s Allegory of Virtue and Vice (1565), contorting Hercules’s head into that of a wart-ridden and bloodshot beast. He carries a lantern as the contiguous Donatello sculpture’s arm opens a curtain, revealing a rayless cavern. No longer reading as a vestige left over from her days of abstraction, here Dougherty’s reflexive flattening-out is remarkably successful. Each perceptual element is interwoven within a smooth theatrical narrative.

Cheim & Read’s exhibition contains a number of genuinely intriguing paintings that successfully instrumentalize flatness by cleaving the picture-plane. These make up for the tamer portraits, where strikes towards the uncanny frequently fall flat. One hopes Dougherty will continue in the direction of the former.


Ekin Erkan

Ekin Erkan is a writer, curator, and researcher whose writing has appeared in The Journal of Value Inquiry, the International Journal of Philosophical Studies, and Hyperallergic, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues