New York

Susan Rothenberg

Willard Gallery

Susan Rothenberg has always been the most “formalist” of the painters lately and arbitrarily grouped as “New Image”; as of now, she is also one of the most advanced down the seemingly inexorable road to a new flat-out Expressionism. This makes for an interesting tension, to say the least. I’d like to call the very powerful impact of her current work “visceral,” but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. The paintings hit higher than the viscera. Their effect is both frenetic and icy, a frozen violence very much of the head—without being heady, because they are so firmly composed and cannily painted. There is an evident abhorrence of the slack illustrational quality that makes much New Image painting so resist-able. As much as ever, the paint quality, color (or lack of it), drawing, etc., of Rothenberg’s horse pictures aren’t there to add up as style; they’re there to make the individual paintings work. This puts the psychological charge of the bizarre imagery at a kind of, well, “Brechtian” distance, which of course renders it all the more potent.

Briefly, Rothenberg has dislocated her horses from their former profile adjustment to the shape of the painting; in some paintings she has dismembered them as well, and we get compositions of horse-parts—for instance a head locked like a nut in a nutcracker between two upturned legs. There’s also the spooky new element of a long bone-shape (its proportions wrong for any actual bone, human or equine, I can think of) that functions dramatically in a number of compositions. In one, the head of a horse in frontal silhouette is distended by a bone wedged into it crosswise. In another, a galloping frontal silhouette seems to be knocked sideways by a bone that connects its head to its hip (does a horse have hips?). And in a very peculiar figure painting a bone is wedged between the back of the head of a smoking man and a corner of the picture; it is bent, as if under terrific pressure. But it is not Rothenberg’s pictorial images that one remembers so much as the means that appear to generate them, and the sheer intensity of the whole enterprise.

Rothenberg’s new paintings are underpainted black and and/or blue (in a densely pigmented French vinyl paint called flashe, mixed with acrylic medium) and overpainted with many, many brushy layers of white (gesso, sometimes mixed with medium, sometimes not). The shapes and contours are thus fissures in the whiteness, which has a fulsome quality, feathery, dense and very bright, in contrast to the tarlike black; where white and black blend there is a range of viscid grays. The spareness of color and drawing and the compulsively worked quality of the surface make for one kind of intensity; the pictorial evocation of checked, dislocated, tortured mind/body states makes for another. This doubled intensity is disagreeable enough to make one look for an excuse to discount it, but I, at least, couldn’t find any. There’s a risk in this art, as in Expressionism generally, of devolution into stylishness, the mere show of strong feeling. But so far Rothenberg seems armed against that possibility, driving hard into the future.

Peter Schjeldahl