New York

Sam Messer

Ruth Siegel Ltd.

Images of fish and stuffed birds, a woman gazing thoughtfully beside a mirror or daydreaming over a bowl of apples, a skull grinning nastily out of a man’s inward-gazing face—everything in Sam Messer’s heavily worked paintings seems to exist in a forlorn, uncomfortable realm. No hint of sunlight, no view of the outdoors offsets the isolation, even through a window. Instead, views of the artist’s studio, his tenement room, and a bar make for cluttered interiors in which the stench of mortality prevails. Empty wine glasses, conch shells, and crucifixes are evidence that life is nasty, brutish, and short.

In his new paintings Messer continues both to work in a wide range of scales and to make direct references to the art of Goya, El Greco, Chaim Soutine, and Picasso. However, unlike the many artists of his generation who appropriate images for ironic purposes, Messer attempts to make his borrowing yield an untapped psychic power embedded in them. He typically achieves this through juxtaposing his art-historical references with his own interpolations—a nude using her index finger to balance a fish on her big toe, for example. The strongest paintings set up such images in an unexplained hierarchy. What makes them compelling is that they manage to exist in a prerational world rather than a post-Modern one.

In Woman with Fish, 1983–84, a skull headed man gazes into his empty glass while a nude stands nearby, delicately balancing a fish on the man’s forehead with her finger. The viewer’s emotions are pulled in different directions by the man’s self-absorption, the grinning skull, the ethereal presence of the nude, and the quirky placement of the fish. The mood moves from jokiness, to a sweet delicacy, to a morbid grimness and black humor. Messer can be characterized as a contemporary symbolist; a dreamlike logic prevails in his work, and in his best paintings and drawings the conjunction of images is startling and absolutely right. The artist is still in his 20s. Rarely does a painter achieve such compelling juxtapositions and emotionality at his age.

John Yau