New York

Robert Birmelin

Sherry French Gallery

What I like about Robert Birmelin’s pictures is their perspective and scale. Both are ironically precise and explode the picturesque. For example, in Dominance and Submission (with Yellow Bus), 1985, our eyes follow the orthogonal projection of an arm to an upright green signpost, only to be brought up short by a yellow bus after leaping across an indeterminate space. An infinite vista is projected as we move down the street; but again we are stopped, this time by the excruciating complexity and clutter of detail.

Birrnelin’s paintings are brilliant in the way they confront us with a variety of urban spaces and surfaces, including human surfaces. His is a toughminded realism—these are not a tourist’s pictures. They flatter no one, and are full of psychological as well as material detail. Indeed, for Birmelin, the Trash, 1986, on a city street has as much “character” as his figures. Physiology becomes physiognomy, and the more abbreviated the physiology the more physiognomically important it seems to become. In Being There (Head and Feet), 1985, the close-up contrast of a man’s face as he sleeps on a sidewalk and a woman’s feet and ankles speaks volumes more than if we could get far enough away from the scene to see the complete figures. The laconic handling expands the meaning of this incomplete psychosocial drama, preventing the confrontational mode from collapsing into affectation. Birmelin is shown to be a master of condensation, replacing what he has displaced physically with psychic impact.

While these works are spatially manneristic in the way they get maximum effect out of the minidramas that surround us on the New York streets (dramas we ignore as much as the participants ignore us, so quintessentially private is anonymous “public” space), they are also stridently moralistic. Color and shape are brazen, garish beyond descriptive necessity. The works have the flair of Baroque genre parables; the male figure burning a $20 bill (The Twenty Dollar Bill, 1985), then a $100 bill (In the Richest City in the World, 1985), is another kind of cardplayer—a gambler against fate. Also, as in Caravaggio’s La Zingara (The fortune-teller, ca. 1595), Birmelin’s money-burning paintings deal with the relationship of a man and a woman. Even Being There (Head and Feet) can be regarded as an allusion to the “ill-assorted lovers” genre picture: the arrogant high heels on the female legs marching indifferently by seem to tell it all.

Indeed, the tough, cocky New York woman is almost a constant in Birmelin’s paintings, often physically peripheral but psychologically central. In On Eighth Avenue (Commuters and Others), 1986, a man dashes away from a woman, whose overblown face monopolizes the painting’s foreground. In the background, a woman throws coins to a legless male beggar. This illustration of dependence
on female charity makes obvious what is subliminal in the foreground scene that frames it––the female’s dominance of the male, whose downcast eyes bespeak his submissiveness.

In the paintings in this exhibition, which was titled “On Being an Observe,” Birmelin has done more than stylize observed social surfaces. He has analyzed a whole society with an extraordinary economy of visual means. He has the ruthlessness of the greatest realists: he reveals the uncivility beneath the urbane public surface. He makes equally clear just how crude New York is. Above all, he creates the illusion that the subtlest aspects of human reality are completely obvious, if, with a little artistic coaxing, one only looks.

Donald Kuspit