New York

Alan Turner

Koury Wingate Gallery

Alan Turner’s paintings strike a tone of disrupted civility peculiar to English art. Turner may be from the Bronx, but his show made me think initially of the skits of Monty Python, the films of Lindsay Anderson, and the music of the Pet Shop Boys. In each of these cases English society’s famous layer of politesse is lampooned with a self-reflexive cynicism disguised as parody. It’s a cynicism grown very agile through decades of use and misuse by artists in virtually every strata of English entertainment. This agility has allowed for some of the blackest of comedy, as well as some of the quirkiest. Turner’s whimsical depictions of what can best be described as human quilts may have as their ostensible subject matter the spooky flimsiness of the body’s covering, but their real specialty is a very dry, very proper dance around the boundaries of etiquette.

In a typical Turner, body parts are scattered across a flesh-colored background, which is itself framed (within the composition) by swatches of domestic-looking fabrics. Most of the paintings contain at least one eye, usually wide open with curiosity, plus a finger or two, often bent as though to suggest the hand of a cultured tea drinker. Ears, noses, and chins are common components. Genitalia are not, although the background “flesh” is sometimes folded in vaguely buttockslike configurations. Each work contains one comically obtrusive element: a wrench, a fly, a thermometer. Two works on display here include a strand of braided hair, in one case encircling a finger. These particular paintings are slightly more engaging than the rest, as much for their overt cuteness as for their suggestion of misogyny. In fact Turner’s work is generally most infectious when he tests the charms of his mildly skillful technique by identifying the sex of his dismembered subjects. Too often, for all their cluttered obscurity, these paintings feel empty, like illustrations torn from absent storybooks. This is especially true in the more literal pieces, such as Sleeper II, 1988, in which the various eyes are closed, and Couch/Couch, 1988, which includes slivers of two couches.

Ultimately there may be too little at stake here. The artist’s designs on the human body are imaginative without seeming either stylistically subtle or visionary. The schtick that Turner has settled upon has an oddball, old-world decorum, but it is a simple sideshow for the knowledgeable, and a vague peculiarity to the browser.

Dennis Cooper