New York

Peter Schuyff

Pat Hearn Gallery

Peter Schuyff’s carefully worked neo-Surrealist paintings are immediately attractive in traditional Modernist ways; they almost look naive—pre-Bomb—in their apparently sincere acceptance of esthetic canon. This 25-year-old Dutch-born painter, now working in New York, has produced large and small canvases and works on paper on canvas that are deeply involved in the activity of quoting but at the same time have their own integrity. Indefinite, loosely worked grounds in one or two colors are floatingly inhabited by bone- and shell-like biomorphic abstract shapes which immediately recall many images by Joan Miró and, above all, by Yves Tanguy. Some works are more complexly layered. Air (Sky), 1983, for example, has a complex array of Tanguy-esque Surrealist biomorphs on a René Magritte–ish ground of blue sky and clouds. The most recent work involves painting on top of older found paintings, which are mostly turn-of-the-century brown in color. In Masterpiece, 1983, for example, a late-Victorian landscape is hung sideways, with a Tanguyesque form painted like a graffito on top of it. In another work a girl who resembles the subject of the original classical nude looks out through a hole in the spongy bone-tissue shape floating in front of her. Art-historical semiotic games are played with skill and appeal in these works.

Schuyff’s work seems uncannily resolved and finished for someone his age, partly because it draws so much from book and museum masterpieces of tried and true esthetic value. The focused quoting—the commitment to ape a certain classical style—may give form and discipline to young talent, as once young poets might devote themselves to the sonnet. Schuyff’s ability speaks through the layered snippets from art history in the fine balance, the sensitive shapes, the bold restraint of primary colors. Still, there is something here troublingly like the old art-student practice of copying masterpieces.

Paintings that are so deeply involved in quotation of recognizable Modernist emblems are virtually a kind of literature—that is, a critical literature: painting as a second-generation form of conceptual art. This of course is one of the strains not only of the so-called East Village movement but of post-Modernist painting in general. The implications, problems, and semiotic complexities of this activity lead beyond the limitations of a review. In one sense these works are art-historical cartoons, with something of the appeal that reproductions of classic works had in the ’50s. In another, they are impersonal, conceptual ideograms of art-historical processes at work. The situation becomes curious when an artist feels such work to be intimately his or her own. The critic may read the work as distanced, cool, semiotic parody while the artist may be feeling as self-expressive as Van Gogh. There are, after all, deeply involved and committed Elvis Presley imitators in the world.

Thomas McEvilley