New York

Mark Kostabi

Mark Kostabi is struggling to put his anonymous, featureless gray figure, robotic in import, to new use. But this figure remains his real achievement, not the scenes into which it is coyly dropped; there it merely functions corrosively, lending them its hollowness. Kostabi diminishes the master art-historical scenes he starts with, which for all their cliched character remain both artistically and humanly salient. In trivializing Edward Hopper’s famous counter scene (from Nighthawks, 1942), in Greenwich Avenue, 1986, or George Segal’s postromantic couple in bed (Couple on a Bed, 1965), in his Interior, 1986, Kostabi spits in the eye of artistic accomplishment and human need. “Romantic” American art seems to be his major target, as suggested by Me and Them, 1986—among the wittiest of his “conversions” of masterpieces into his own minor pieces—in which he inserts his figurines into the “cosmic” space of expressionistic painting. Kostabi doesn’t know how to paint; he knows how to make momentarily clever scenes: is that part of his revenge on those who do know how to paint and to make scenes that we linger over reflectively, that compel us on more than the one level of articulation Kostabi manages to sustain? It is easy to take potshots at one’s betters, but hard to destroy them.

The most prominent device in these new works (which include sculpture) is the use of “vibrant” color, especially bright blue and red, which becomes all the more startling in the gray context that has become Kostabi’s trademark. I know it’s silly to look at the works esthetically; the whole point of “bad painting” is to preempt such a point of view, as if antiestheticism achieved on the cheap were inherently more powerful than hard-won, “expensive” estheticism. But Kostabi’s works are so bad that they even subvert the good name of “bad painting”: offering conclusive evidence that it’s not so cunning, daring, and critical as we might like to believe. What used to épate le bourgeois now simply bores us.

Kostabi’s real achievement is his morbid little figure, but that hardly amounts to an artistic vision. Kostabi was at his best when, in his early works, he made small pictures in which the figure loomed large, becoming an end in itself. A few prints in the current exhibition are vestiges of that early precision, in which Kostabi seemed to accept his limits, and inhabit them comfortably. Now, he’s looking to tell a larger truth, but he fails in the attempt. The mannequin/homunculus in and of itself is already a big truth, perhaps too complete in itself to narrate or be dramatic. We respond to the figure because we know that it exists somewhere in our psyche, pushing the buttons that keep us functioning by rote in the routine world. But Kostabi’s fetishization of the automaton in us does not free us from it by bringing us to full consciousness of it. Instead, it binds us to it as if in a nightmare. Perhaps that is why we can say that Kostabi has, after all, made his point: there’s no escape from the nightmare.

Donald Kuspit