New York

Nancy Grossman

Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery

In Nancy Grossman’s collage paintings, monumental men are posed in positions that pit brute force against agonizing constraint. As in the Renaissance, the nude is used to convey a world view, but one distinctly tinged with 20th-century pessimism. The human condition is made all the more painful because the artist illustrates it with nudes whose ideal beauty suggests a potential for well-being. For all their brawn, however, they are not free to control their fate. Indeed, the Promethean nudes are as violently constricted as they are bristling with animal threat. Their brute strength is countered by a suggestion of frailty in the idea of the delicate collage technique, and the idea of bondage is reinforced by the organization of form. The bodies, clad in masks, cod-pieces and what seem to be leathery sections of armor, are made up of many pieces of paper that have been previously tinted in flesh tones or in muted or luminous blues, greens, purples, maroons. The papers look like dried skin, crinkly cloth or old parchment. Some of the narrow strips of masking tape, which served to hold the collage fragments together while the artist worked, have not been removed. They look cruelly fetishistic and constricting, like lacings and whale bones in an orthopedic corset. These pasted men seem to be composed entirely of a fragile, piecemeal surface that denies the volumes suggested by contours. Even their nudity is ambivalent; the seams and patches, the straps, cod-pieces and masks they wear are all excrescences of the skin. Flesh itself becomes the restrictive garment.

Their shackled state is implied rather than depicted. One nude, standing like Saint Sebastian with his hands tied behind his back, is actually identified as Bound Figure. Many figures fold their arms in front of them: their biceps bulge explosively, but their forearms seem to be encased in a straight jacket. In several paintings, strips of paper collaged against the solid ground color impinge on the figure like arrows or spears. While these lines anchor the figure in space and sometimes serve to lock the figure’s mass to the picture’s edge, they also drive home the idea of confinement. In response to such transfixing lines, one figure throws back his head and arms in anguish. Another, Figure with Raised Arms, lifts his elbows skyward as helplessly as Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, though without that sculpture’s luxuriant submissiveness.

Grossman’s hulking figures are also minatory, poised on the edge of violence. Two collages, both called Gun Figure, show men wearing masks which have projecting automatic weapons for noses. Some figures have daemonic horns. Even so, the horns are part of the masks, and the masks, like gags, seem imposed on the men, not chosen. To reinforce her idea, Grossman constrains her men in space. The background color silhouettes the figure by overlapping its collaged surface. The figure is thus defined not by the edges of its flesh, but by the contour of surrounding space.

Grossman communicates her horrific sense of alienation and repression in terms of the well-made picture. Nevertheless, there is something missing in her equation between beauty and meaning. Perhaps the problem is that the spectator remains too aware of the virtuosity of her technique and of the aptness with which she fits form to idea. Like mannikins modeling the human predicament, Grossman’s figures seem to act out her thought without fully becoming the medium of her emotion. Beauty chafes against feeling, so the feeling is illustrated by, rather than embodied in, style.

Hayden Herrera