New York


56, Bleecker Gallery

Austé’s recent series of paintings is as cunningly outrageous as any of her wickedly flamboyant work to date. In this, her third solo show in New York, Austé surely enthralled those who are already fans and further alienated those less enamored of her special sort of rococo kitsch. A bit like Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company or the films of Jack Smith and John Waters, she will probably always mark something of a break in subjective taste. One could easily follow the “it’s-so-bad-it’s-good” school of thinking and categorize Austé’s phantasmagoria as camp. Yet her fevered pitch contains a note of private hysteria that is even more extreme than her flowery facade of romping burlesque, bringing to the tackiness of these works an introspection that places them in the artistic region of the mythical and visionary. To fully appreciate Austé’s grand airs of heavy-handed grace, one needs to grasp together the loose strands of the jokiness of her vulgar caricature, the exaltation of her self-indulgent ecstasy, and the pathology of her exaggeration. Like a nervous party hostess who hopelessly overplays the role of the glamorous, sophisticated woman, the leading lady in the mock drama of these paintings is an absurdly overdressed drag queen of unaccountable fascination; a figure of humor, pathos, and poetry.

The baroque taste of Austé’s dandyistic mannerism is itself infectious. As a language both of parody and of self-expression, her recklessly busy design has a perverse charm that is neither too contrived nor too spontaneous. This work is able to laugh at itself as well as to remain consistently personal and poetic in its fetishized perception of prettiness. As jewels that may be paste yet are as splendid and hypnotic as real diamonds, they bring into question the ideals of informed and intuitive cultural codes. The empress of fashion parades in her shimmering new clothes, and we become painfully aware of our perceptual choice: whether to see her as a naked fallen idol or a fantasy star in her most celebrated costume. There is a deliberate confusion in the boundaries of sexual politics here. It is not too much to view the ridiculously cliched and overworked details of frilly, feminine loveliness as luridly transvestite. By alluding to such cultural androgyny, Austé shatters the smug notion of womanhood as both a beauty queen ideal and an artistic limitation. Then, by her miraculous transfiguration of this archetype of grotesque glamour into an erotically sensual vision, she questions the criteria of artistic significance as it is inevitably codified by the elitist attitude of the male intelligentsia.

The anti-intellectualism and bad taste apparent in Austé’s art is inspired by the same reversal of values as the most deliberately lowbrow art—pitting anarchy against tradition—but without the usual manifestations of antagonistic gestures. Austé ironically simulates the stilted pose of social grace, reveling in a metatraditionalism so regressive that it becomes, in fact, transgressional. The superficial babble of decoration is multiplied into a mass chaotic chatter of the madding crowd, as their lucid pleasantries become, in Austé’s hallucinatory presentations, unfamiliar and deranged.

Carlo McCormick