New York

Jillian Denby

A.M. Sachs Gallery

Because Neel focuses so sharply on human nature as content, I find it difficult to criticize her use of figuration. That photography is probably a more effective means of social documentation seems a moot point. The problems involved in the use of the human figure in contemporary painting are more obvious in Jillian Denby’s work. Denby stages her naked models in calculated abstract compositions which hint at a modern-day revival of Neoclassicism. This reference to Neoclassicism is not made in jest, for the stoical clarity of design is reminiscent of David, while the decidedly linear contours of the figures suggest Ingres. Denby positions her models parallel to the picture plane. To further deny any recessional space, she closes off the background with a strongly colored drape which pushes the eye to the surface. Yet, despite this almost mimetic fulfillment of Wölfflin’s dictums, the use of the human figure itself creates a Mannerist element which undermines the classicistic structure. No matter how detached or unsensuous the treatment, the human figure is not an object. There are unavoidable associations, connotations, which enter into one’s perception of the figure. One has an intimate knowledge of the body that it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore. Thus, in looking at Denby’s Three Seated Figures, one is uncomfortably aware of the unnatural stiffness of the poses, frozen on the canvas. The realism of the depiction and the vacant stares of the models strengthen this disturbing sensation. Similarly, one is aware that the figure in Vagrant reclines against wooden steps with only a thin throw rug to cushion the hardness. An incipient eroticism (which is implicit in other works as well) is hinted at by the hermaphroditism of the model. All of this makes me question the efficacy of Denby’s choice of the human form. If representational painting is a viable means, then it would seem to me that the subject matter should coincide with the formal interests. To contrive the arrangement of human bodies, as one would a still life, emphasizes a pretentious, artificial patterning which vitiates the directness of realistic depiction. I wonder whether the figure is really essential to Denby’s abstract vision or whether it is used only for its eclectic value and Mannerist implications.

––Susan Heinemann