David Kroll

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

David Kroll’s self-conscious immersions into a specific art-historical genre are so fully conversant with the milieu of his sources as to constitute a kind of esthetic necrophilia. His recent paintings depict a wistful neo-Romantic world where nature and humankind coexist in uneasy and poignant relation, where balance and order are tenuous. Kroll employs a certain formula—in the background he always depicts wispy and puffy trees in a manner reminiscent of Gainsborough. These trees and the skies around them are rendered in misty sepia hues of brown and caramel that give these works the appearance of age or of having been immersed in varnish. Across a very shallow plane in the foreground, Kroll typically arrays vases, fruits, birds, vegetation, insects, bowls, eggs, nests, frogs, snakes, etc., largely in the tradition of tabletop still life. All is staged for maximum theatrical effect and pictorial clarity within symmetrical compositions.

These strategies could, of course, result in no more than empty historical mimicry, a retrograde escapism into the exhausted patterns of the past. Kroll manages to avoid this by introducing psychic dissonance into pictorial arcadia. Roses and Goldfish, 1994, seems to present a rococo immersion into indolence and excess. The pinkish roses that jam up against the picture’s surface are so numerous, have such dramatic petals and foliation, as to seem unnatural. In their midst, Kroll sets a small, fragile bowl of Sevres porcelain filled with a teeming group of goldfish. This image of surfeit acts as a metaphor for our flawed and selfish stewardship of nature.

In Bittern with Apricots, 1994, discord also infiltrates Eden. Thirteen apricots lie across the foreground here, their placement only seemingly random. One of the apricots has been neatly cut in half, and the bittern (this may be the first appearance of this bird in the history of art since Rembrandt’s 1639 Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern) caressingly lifts the pit with its beak. This encounter between a prized fruit and a bird that seems about to devour the only part of the apricot that would not provide sustenance is a teasing reminder of the perversity of nature.

This mood permeates Kroll’s work, whether he is depicting eggs placed a few inches outside their nests, vulnerable and exposed, or a small, rapacious bird on a glistening piece of cantaloupe. The line separating civilization from chaos, the domesticated from the wild, is shown to be extremely thin. His dutiful gestures toward tradition and order also become a veneer beneath which the darkest passions can flourish.

James Yood