New York

Philip Pearlstein

Frumkin Gallery

There is a defiant didacticism to Philip Pearlstein’s paintings which I think I would find less offensive if I could draw some kind of nourishment from them. But I can’t. Seeing a group of Pearlstein’s nudes left me with the indefinable feeling of seeing a group of non-paintings, that is, Pearlstein’s repeated and emphatic presentation of a fastidiously doctored verisimilitude forced me to dwell on that and nothing else. It is not a verisimilitude which ultimately, I feel, answers to Pearlstein’s felt response to what he sees, but one which fairly evidently answers to some sort of posture he has adopted about a representation of nudeness in contemporary life. (His portraits pose other problems which I shall get to.)

Pearlstein chooses to present his models close up, closed off within the shallow confines of an obliquely angled wall and a tipped floor plane, flesh bleached, denatured almost, by an extremely intense light source. This is the unvarying conceptual framework within which Pearlstein will modify certain variables, like the kind of elisions and distortions he uses in his exhaustive anatomical analyses, the kind of cropping he chooses to employ, the degree to which he departs from life scale, the degree to which he stresses the volumetric qualities of bodies. What is, proposed is a stark encounter with an equally stark account of human flesh; the effect, however, in my experience of Pearlstein’s paintings, is that of an encounter with an artifact, the impact of which is in some way deeply specious. There is something like a vaunted objectivity and naturalness to Pearlstein’s transcription of three-dimensional illusionism, which, because one is forced to focus on this aspect of Pearlstein’s paintings, is repeatedly and unilluminatingly shown up for its unnaturalness. One of the most obvious aspects of this unnaturalness is Pearlstein’s use of an enlarged scale; his figures are frequently considerably larger than human scale. The combination of Pearlstein’s neutral, largely concealed brushwork, and his extraordinarily deft and plausible visual emulation of the way in which our vision records facts, creates an effect of a slightly freakish giantism. Beyond this, I find Pearlstein’s scaling up of human anatomy to be expressive of one thing only, more flesh, synthetically rendered. The repetition of this kind of artificiality with each reiterated single or double nude representation is deeply unrewarding.

While Pearlstein’s nudes carry in their bodies whatever specificity he allows them as people, by means of their thinness or heaviness and the awkwardness or grace in the disposition of their limbs, his portrait subjects carry their specificity as people much less easily. In fact it seems to me that it is in Pearlstein’s portraits that the syntheticness of his style is most vulnerably revealed. In part this has to do with the fact that the nude body simply bears up better to Pearlstein’s harshly lit examinations and is more interesting to look at; the kind of sharp foreshortenings, the tippings and tiltings and the croppings which Pearlstein employs present at least some postural and anatomical variation in the display of nudeness. In his clothed portraits, however, the burden of Pearlstein’s peculiarly mannered examination falls largely on faces and clothes and it is here that Pearlstein’s sour, putty-like tonality and harshly lit illusionism seems most specious and inconsequential, because it conveys, automatically as it were, a kind of melodramatic drabness and ugliness which is somehow less obtrusive in Pearlstein’s nude representations.

Jane Harrison Cone