New York

David Paulson

Over and over again, in relentless repetition, David Paulson paints half-length and bust-length portraits. Out of a greenish or sickly yellowish gloom, a head—sometimes explicitly a self-portrait, more often implicitly one—emerges, like a kind of apparition. Its expression is usually grim, and frequently unreadable. Some of the figures have a faint smile, but all seem to possess a quiet anguish. Paulson’s works are frankly subjective; they have a strangely fixated, paralyzed, schizoid quality—a sense of distance heightened by the way they seem bound to the painterly atmosphere from which they emerge—that seems to me to epitomize the modern self. That self is injured in a special way: it has lost the possibility of relating to the Other, except in a nominal way. What counts about Paulson’s figures is not simply their isolation, but their passivity within their isolation. It is not the product of indifference, but comes from the loss of the capacity to relate. This has been much commented upon by certain psychoanalytic thinkers: it seems more of a contemporary existential truth than man’s trumpeted freedom.

Paulson’s surfaces are alternately soft and gritty. There is a certain edginess within the stillness of his pictures, as though something were stirring, but didn’t know how to make itself manifest. Paulson gives us the stillness of the inner world, animated only by feelings. The sense of festering feeling, indeed of fixation—each figure seems an allegorical personification of such a feeling—pervades the works. Paulson has gone beyond the usual psychological portrait, with its attempt to make external physiology imply internal physiognomy. He has all but abandoned the physical specificity of a given person in order to bring into sharp focus a certain psychic quality. I think he has done this with unusual brevity, for there is really little to these pictures—no setting, and no attributes for the figure. In fact, looked at carefully, it is impossible to determine, in most cases, whether the subjects are dressed or naked. Such issues are clearly beside the point for Paulson, who has managed to turn the stunted psyche inside out without spilling its contents. The elusiveness of these figures is, after all, an indication of their particular madness. Grotesque distortion hardly tells the full horror story for today’s human—not nearly so well as the profound emptiness Paulson articulates.

Donald Kuspit