New York

Sarah Charlesworth

Jay Gorney Modern Art

Sarah Charlesworth describes the means by which she makes her art as being composed of equal parts work and magic. The slightly fey tone of the latter word is as good a key as any to the faint uneasiness that this show of new photographs inspires.

On exhibit were ten laminated Cibachromes of collages, in which figures from reproductions of various Old Master paintings had been isolated, combined, and then rephotographed against a monochrome background. A piece entitled Transfiguration (all works 1991), showed figures from Piero della Francesca, surrounded by silhouettes filled in with folds of cloth by Grünewald. Another, called Separation, was a diptych showing two figures from Botticelli isolated against a black background, reaching out to each other across the strip of frame that divided the picture plane in two.

Charlesworth wants to resituate or repose Renaissance figures so that they illustrate contemporary takes on sexual, emotional, and psychological states; the titles of two works, Denial and Complex, make the kinds of phenomena she’s after clear enough. The photographs, it should be said, are stunning, and not just because the original paintings are; the colors are so saturated, the detail so clear, and the composition so exacting that the works as a whole have a remarkably authoritative presence. But the thinking behind the work is a bit troubling. One’s response to a painting by Botticelli, Raphael, or Bronzino, is in part a result of centuries of connoisseurship and of a kind of nostalgia for the relevance of sheer painterly skill. But we don’t, of course, live in Piero’s world, and we can’t see a Piero painting, or even a fragment of one, without experiencing this built-in emotional and spiritual seriousness. The result is that Charlesworth’s work gains a kind of depth that it hasn’t really earned.

The works on the bottom floor of the gallery—silverprints of superimposed Renaissance drawings—are less manipulative, and therefore more successful (and, not incidentally, more conceptually complex). The notebooks that Charlesworth mines are fragile things, and since the images in them are incompletely realized, they’re more malleable. The states they illustrate—family dynamics, social codes, and the like—are also more forceful. One print, called Leda, Her Old Age and Death, stands out as a remarkable meditation on the passing of time, the harrowing nature of myth, and the means by which both can be represented. In it, a full rendering by Raphael of a woman (Leda was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, and begat Helen) is superimposed over two drawings by Leonardo of skeletal, dessicated women, so that the latter seem to fall away from the full figure like a motion study of a ghost leaving a body. Were all the pieces in the exhibit so finely tuned the show would have been extraordinary; as it was it seemed a mixed blessing.

James Lewis