New York

John Bellany

Ruth Siegel

There are two issues raised by the existentialist-realist point of view John Bellany shares with the Glasgow painters, to whom he apparently serves as a father figure: the validity of the expressionist attitude and the viability of the old painterly distortions for articulating it. The expressionist attitude will continue to make sense as long as life is “solitary,” “nasty,” “brutish,” (and for many too “short”), to use Hobbes’ words. On the other hand, it is no longer clear that painterly distortion has the carrying power it once did. This is not because it has been conventionalized—all languages eventually wear thin—but because we have come to realize that it is not adequate to the inner life it means to evoke. No amount of painterliness can convey the energy at large in the psyche, no amount of distortion can convey the thoroughness with which subjectivity colors our perceptions. An artist, such as Bellany, who insists on the old painterly mode, must strain it to the limit to give it new credibility.

Bellany tries hard to do so. His (con)frontal, rather Christ-on-the-cross-like face glowers at us from work after work. Abundantly breasted nudes, their eyes as emphatically large and stark as Bellany’s, stare out at us. Sometimes they are masked—muted?—as though in a macabre carnival. Otherwise, there is the usual range of demented, dismal-looking figures that have constituted the iconography of inner realism since James Ensor, Max Beckmann, and Chaim Soutine.

I don’t think the familiar figures and the very well-crafted crudeness make the pictures work. It’s the brazen color—particularly the biophiliac yellow—that does. The sunny glow of these works counts more than their human subject matter, which, for all its no doubt personal significance comes off as tedious. The catalogue tells us about the suffering that authenticates Bellany, but who escapes suffering? It is no automatic guarantee of authenticity. Bellany’s yellow is stretched to the limit; it appears everywhere—in his beautiful flowers as well as his ugly faces and bodies—transcending and outsmarting them as well as the darkness that tries to creep into the pictures. Bellany’s yellow shows up his figures, suggesting that their melancholy has become a bit of an act. In contrast to the ease and intensity of the yellow, their seriousness seems strained and pointless. It is perhaps the most provincial, stagey part of these otherwise wonderfully bright pictures. Joy may come easier to Bellany than he knows, whatever his vested interest in pain.

Donald Kuspit