New York

Philip Pearlstein

Robert Miller Gallery

Philip Pearlstein is usually regarded as a master realist, a consummate observer who renders the nude with a startling precision that makes it seem peculiarly alien and enigmatic, fresh rather than familiar. But such a reading neglects that he is, in fact, an abstract painter, indeed one of the first to realize that flatness had exhausted itself, and to replace it—or complement it—with the body. In Pearlstein’s hands the figure becomes a rounded surface full of intricate detail that often form a peculiarly weightless, even wry pattern. The complexity of the skin’s surface is not only pictured, but becomes the model for the skin of the picture.

Previously, Pearlstein’s abstractness was openly signaled by the seemingly arbitrary way in which he cropped his figures. In these new works (all 1994), abstraction is evident in his conspicuously planned, indeed, seemingly overplanned—almost Mannerist—compositions. The figure becomes a perverse composition in itself, an oddly mechanical, indeed, mineral construction: a deceptive terrain of unevenly lit planes, implicitly at odds with one another yet alike in their aloof emotional tone. It is as though we are moving over a dangerous, unstable glacier, full of hidden faults. Indeed, we completely lose our footing when we follow the outline of a Pearlstein figure. In Model with Apache Basket the figure is a masterpiece of contradiction—a kind of anamorphic device that amounts to an absurd counterfigure. In effect, we have two figures in one: a literally immobile, inexpressive one within which lurks a grotesque, violently expressive figure—an unexpected, dramatic shadow self. (Dare one say the soul within the body?)

Thus we have the other side of Pearlstein’s realism. He offers us a double vision: that of the surface, determined by everyday observation, which, however acute, remains absorbed in facticity; and that of depth—an intimation, of a half-hidden monstrous emotional underworld. Perhaps the major indication of the inner life within the otherwise purely external figures are the studio props that surround them. These props are as vividly colored as the figures are pale. It is as though all the turbulence and intensity of feeling has been projected into the props, which thus become ironic emotional attributes. The figures seem unfeeling and sexless, while the props are full of erotic feeling. In fact, a number of the works establish an extraordinary—virtually sexual—proximity between the figures and props. Japanese Robe and Carousel Ostrich and Two Nudes and Four Goose Decoys restage the myth of Leda and the swan. Nude with Two Fox Heads is also sexual in import, as if Pearlstein were casting himself as the fox in the hen house. His pictures are full of familiar symbols, theatrically manipulated in a threatening, mannerist, emotionally suggestive way.

Conceptually, perhaps the most original of them is Male Model, Minstrel Marionettes, and Unfinished Painting. In Tennessee Williams fashion, the seated white master looks as if he’s about to be toppled from his garden chair by his black male attendants. Pearlstein clearly has taken a lesson or two from E. T. A. Hoffman: the living figures become mannequins, the mannequins living figures, and it is only nominally clear which is which. But more to the point is the relentlessness with which he conveys the simultaneity of intimacy and alienation—the emotional absurdity—of life, not to speak of art. This quality is played out in physical terms that not only ratify Pearlstein’s pursuit but make it seem inevitable.

Donald Kuspit