New York

Nancy Grossman

Terry Dintenfass Gallery

Nancy Grossman overplays and overstates the psychological dimension, as if pushing an old mode of making it manifest to its limits in the hope of generating one suitable for the current age. Drawings of naked figures and of totems (and the brilliant sculptural assemblage from which the latter are derived) bristle with potential violence, compete to be “expressive”—to restore a fiction of dramatic expression. Indeed, whether human or inhuman, profane or sacred (the phallocentric totem sculpture from 1984 is entitled Succot, and is clearly chthonic), the works have a nervous, almost oppressive, narrative quality to them. Again, one senses a strain on the pictorial conventions of communicating action. This is exacerbated by the fact that the action depicted is pushed to an explosive limit, as if neither it nor the emotions aroused by it could be contained—or, if they were containable, adequately articulated—in the essentially static picture.

This is a Mannerist problem, and indeed there are Mannerist allusions in these drawings, to Bronzino and Leonardo’s caricatures. Grossman’s acknowledgment of the Mannerist Old Masters is not just another example of trendy traditionalism, but a reminder that those artists tested the limits of making pathos pictorially manifest and explored the strange images that result. Grossman tries to see if the limits they pushed can be stretched a little further. As with the Mannerists, her stagings are erotic, the sexes competing to articulate opposing emotional extremes. Roles are reversed; the males are beside themselves with feelings, the females are composed, effortlessly calm in the face of male accusation and anger, which eventually become frustration. Are these men devotees of a male god angry at no longer worshipful or subservient feminists? Whether or no, the allegorical potential is strong in these works, as in Mannerist art. If incompletely legible, allegory here is still more than subliminal, like Mannerist pathos. Indeed, the general mannerist problem is to find an allegorical equivalent for feeling within a normative language. This is an impossible task (which intensifies the feeling) since every language seems to fail in the face of mobile, complexly changing emotion. Such emotion is really impossible to name, whether in words or images.

Grossman faces this stylistic problem courageously, using a combination of choppy and long lines, incomplete and complete figures, abrupt and gradual contrasts. She pulls out every linear stop, insisting on the integrity of the lines that define her figures yet varying their density so rapidly within the same work that they seem sometimes like feathers in a vacuum, sometimes ominously heavy and urgent. Perhaps unexpectedly in view of the figures’ clarity, the overall sense is one of tentativeness—an effect absolutely appropriate to intense emotion, which always exists precariously. Even at its most securely obvious it is about to tumble into nothing; it must do so to become new. Grossman’s style shows an idiosyncratic combination of masculine and feminine sensibilities, if that distinction still holds up. One of her feminist points is to show that it doesn’t, which is not to advocate some sort of spiritual androgyny, but rather to indicate that art must use all the resources at its command—old and new—to express pathos, that is, to explicitly bring the psychological dimension into being. Grossman’s hard-won intensity shows that this is not so easy to do as might be thought. It is not simply a matter of generating literary associations for autonomous form, but of making clear that autonomous form is inherently “pathetic.”

Donald Kuspit