New York

Arnold Fern

Feature Inc.

At least since the publication of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857, the image of the flower has shouldered symbolist overtones that distinguish it from the other so-called natural subjects. Artists as diverse as Vincent van Gogh, Odilon Redon, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Lowell Nesbitt, Robert Kushner, Judy Chicago, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gilbert and George, Colette, Jim Isermann, and Christopher Williams have exploited this distinction. Even if most floral depictions can claim no special significance, an outright convergence of beauty and sexuality makes the image of the flower seem less innocent than nature is supposed to be, offering contemporary artists an opportunity to revel in organic form without necessarily looking insipid.

In this recent show, Arnold Fern has considerably honed his approach. If a rambling lyricism once characterized his work, he now paints flower paintings that, through their very straightforwardness, succeed in turning the viewer’s expectations inside out. Just as Fern’s personal invocation of a trusty symbolist icon as such effectively brackets it, so his easygoing adherence to the conventions of realist painting naturalizes the artifice. What emerges from this inversion is a limpid beauty, which the official post-avant-garde often mistakenly construes as a sign of frivolousness. Yet Fern’s approach should not be confused with that of “pod painters” like Terry Winters; Fern does not paint odes to nature but, rather, odes to beauty as artifice.

Fern’s deft, semidetached handling is just elaborate enough to register his intent without seeming rhetorical. His translucent brushwork flip-flops between superficiality and lushness. Compared to techniques used by his peers, Fern’s comes closest to Robert Greene’s; but it offers far fewer cues, and its manner is less disaffected. Although many of Fern’s brushy flowers are bright and colorful, none are quite fresh. Instead, they seem to have been captured just moments after full blossom; decay is imminent, though not yet in evidence, which makes the onrush of time unmistakably palpable. The mood is fatalistic, like that of Proust’s hero who never loves the living Albertine as passionately as he does her memory, although this ardor ultimately fades as well.

In his essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” 1863, Baudelaire quoted Stendhal’s aphorism “Beauty is nothing else but a promise of happiness.” The Modernist ethos, however, has accorded a much different status to beauty, favoring instead Horatio Greenough’s dictum, “Beauty is the promise of function.” Even if Fern’s work obviously comes much closer to Stendhal’s formulation than to Greenough’s, what is curious about both is that neither necessarily grants the beholder anything; by definition beauty is bound only to make promises, not to fulfill them. This may help to clarify beauty’s relationship to that overburdened concept, desire. If desire is that which is fated to travel from one representation to the next, beauty keeps desire burning; satiation extinguishes it. Fern’s paintings are like lovers’ bouquets—promises that are alluring because they may prove empty.

John Miller

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