New York

Ed Paschke

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Ed Paschke’s new paintings are full of art about art references—Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Diego Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja are quoted—but, as always in appropriation art, the attitude toward the borrowed imagery counts as much as the iconography itself. Paschke’s appropriations are characterized by his peculiarly lurid color and the incorporation of small tributary figures—the upper bits of angles, or the heads of black youths. Paschke has always been interested in the bizarre telling detail. The black bands blocking the eyes of his angels, which suggest they are X-rated, and the flattop haircuts sported by the youths serve the same purpose as the leather ornament and tattooing of earlier works. Both are socially sanctioned signs and outlets of perversity.

The telltale outline of a TV screen that appears in several works suggests a favorite Paschke device—the picture within the picture. A dead picture within a dead space (the screen), brings to perverse contemporary life an image that has been drained of all life save the modicum of vitality sparked by our recognition of it as famous. Indeed, Paschke’s cunningly composite images convey a sense of forced functioning, on the verge of malfunction. Nuvo-Retro, 1989-90, makes the appropriation point succinctly. The title suggests that there’s nothing new under the sun and it has all been repackaged. The black youths are an updated retread of Velázquez’s black figure, and—this is the key point—equally anonymous. We can rev up an old image, make it dance to a modern visual beat—Voulez-Vous Danser?, 1989-90, asks the title of a triptych, featuring Mona Lisa as she might look on the record cover of the song named after her—but what we get is the false excitement of going nowhere fast. Paschke has cleverly bent the strategy of appropriation to serve his brand of nihilistic social commentary. These figures, like his others, convey a manufactured sensuality masking their emptiness. Behind the masquerade—the false carnival of colors and media blitz—it’s the subliminal bleakness and depression that counts. In Paschke’s work art functions not simply as another throwaway reproducible, rather its reproducibility reveals a kind of superstitious attitude; everyone wants a piece of the lucky object. As media myth, the artwork’s only (serious) meaning is a byproduct of the fact that it has become ingrained in the collective psyche. With fresh urgency, Paschke conveys the bitter point of appropriation art: one way of handling the deadweight of high culture is to soup it up with a coat of pop gloss. The cosmetic overhaul ups its immediacy, but also brings out the phosphorescent glow of decay, and confirms its mortality. No doubt a certain trendy point can be made of the motivation for appropriating a famous female and a famous black—as though Paschke was acting in the name of women and blacks by taking their images back from sexist, white painters—but the larger issue is that art, whether high or popular, has become simply the production of death masks. Reviving the old idea of the theatrical mask, (Masque, 1989-90), Paschke inadvertently declares culture to be a tragicomedy, by virtue of its all-too-indirect relationship to life. He will take his place in the modern history of the pictorial mask, from James Ensor to Max Beckmann, not only because he shows us that the mask is still a relevant mode of truth-telling, but because he makes it clear that art is not only a mask on life that at once reveals and betrays it, but a cul de sac from which it cannot escape.

Donald Kuspit