New York

Peter Nagy

Jay Gorney Modern Art

In his recent black-and-white gesso paintings, Peter Nagy explores the “grand style” of the Baroque epoch. He transcribes projected images of Xerox composites onto canvas, combining various components from Baroque art and architecture into single images. The images are legible and their original iconographic sources are often identifiable. In God Lie, 1988, for instance, Nagy integrates an oblique view of Bernini’s apse in the Vatican with images of a cherub and a candelabra. He reduces the architectural, gilded, painted, and sculpted details of these elements into a single painting of pronounced flatness. By reducing diverse media to a single painted design, Nagy undermines the idea (first attributed to Bernini) of un bel composto—a beautiful whole. Yet the reduction of the palette to black and white, as well as the transfer from a photocopied image, gives the painting a two-dimensional unity—each element is rendered with equal stress. The black-and-white coloring is also a visual pun on Baroque painting, which emphasizes form through chiaroscuro. Thus Nagy uses the Baroque paradigm to establish a series of antitheses in which paintings self-consciously interpret the concept of their own creation.

Nagy’s elaboration on this antithesis is evident in L’Age D’Or, 1988. Here a Baroque French clock is nestled in the Baroque altar of a Bavarian church. By gracefully transposing a secular object (the clock) into a religious setting (the altar), Nagy maintains a compositional unity that refers to the Baroque esthetic of harmonious integration. The substitution of a clock for a crucifix, however, is ironic in that it replaces an image of the spiritually infinite with one of material, earthly time. By treating the Baroque as a consistent stylistic overlay, Nagy conflates the secular and the spiritual without disrupting the surface image. The result is the codification and, hence, commodification of these elements into a packaged entity. The cool mechanical rendering of Nagy’s process negates the lyrical expressionism of his subject matter.

In his “Cancer” series, 1985–87, Nagy sought to establish “a model of how a system attacks itself by an uncontrolled application of its own principles.” In these paintings he follows the same basic path. He looks to the original meaning of the term “Baroque,” with its connotation of awkwardness and deviation from the norm. When first used, the term described a cultural aberration—the “degenerate” and “diseased” art that linked the High Renaissance to the Neoclassical period. By using the Baroque, Nagy has discovered an alternative expression for aberrant behavior linked to our culture’s past and present. What awaits us in the future is hinted at in two paintings, Study for the 21st Century Rococo, 1988, (a partial city plan of Tokyo) and Kibougaoka, 1988; both suggest visions of the next chapter in the infectious development of our culture.

Kirby Gookin