New York

Julie Wachtel

Diane Brown Gallery

For several years Julie Wachtel has been juxtaposing images, which are based on kitschy greeting-card illustrations, with silk-screened reproductions of photographs. Although she has switched from making simple one- and two-panel pieces to making pieces involving suites of four and six panels, she’s never stopped fiddling around with the ways in which caricature can reflect and distort emotional states.

Her appropriated and gaudily dressed little men, women, and children, some wearing alcoholic halos of bubbles, others with goofily startled, horny, or befuddled expressions, have a needling, funhouse-mirror effect. Wachtel’s latest pieces present more of the same. In encore, 1988, two panels show identical tinted photographs of the comedian Tim Conway wearing a silly costume. They bracket a carefully painted, tacky panel of an overexcited, cutesy dwarf. Conway’s reputation as a sidekick in mindless TV sitcoms, as well as his short, fat figure and dopey face, make him a human equivalent of the central caricature. That figure’s delirium seems to be a kind of reaction shot, one that Wachtel probably hopes is infectious. In another three-panel work the central image is a tinted photograph of Dee Snider, lead singer of the quasi-transvestite heavy metal rock group Twisted Sister. On either side of Snider hang identical caricatures of a child wearing a dunce cap. Typically, the juxtaposition of these panels is wildly suggestive but unspecific. Is Snider’s music the kid’s punishment or his secret ally? Because Twisted Sister’s rebellious and anthem-oriented music has a coded moral value to its young fans, it’s not as easy to characterize as Wachtel may think. The child caricature, on the other hand, is so empty you could fall asleep standing up just looking at it.

In his early paintings, David Salle forced disjunctive, media-derived images of pleasure into palpably awkward arrangements. It was an act of daring, fed and focused by a pained disbelief in the disparity between desires and desirable things. Wachtel’s dialogues are far more rudimentary than Salle’s. They neither reinvent nor intellectually spar with the schizophrenic cultural variables they employ. In this show, the process has become stunted, and her ideas lazier and more programmatic. It’s rare these days to find a work by Wachtel that doesn’t in some way address the war of the sexes, but her attitude is so detached that her work, like a greeting card homily, can be inscribed with virtually any degree of meaning the receiver needs.

Dennis Cooper