New York

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman’s recent exhibition presented as many paintings as sculptures, raising the question of the relationship between the two. Remarkably beautiful and nuanced, these paintings—whose surfaces comprise oil paint on multiple layers of paper-thin gesso—are at once delicate and baroque: flowers flourish against a gridded pictorial field where a naked dwarf is often seated in a corner, sometimes in the company of a woman, also naked, who in one work is seated on a toilet, in another has her head in a vase. The sculptures are officially birdhouses, but covered as they are with archaic, grotesque ornaments—sometimes floral, sometimes mythological—they seem more like cells for the soul in an underworld prison. Eccentrically elegant, historicizing, and perverse—like the paintings—each could be a home for one of Waldman’s dwarfs.

Both paintings and sculptures are fantastic, highly stylized hybrids that yoke together incommensurate elements. In the paintings, contemporary figures and abstract, archaic patterns collide, and sometimes neon lettering adds a zany touch to the work’s contradictoriness. In one of the sculptures six American flags contrast absurdly with six classical columns; it is a decadent, peculiarly tarnished structure, more mannerist, finally, than baroque. With their mocking quotations, these sculptures seem at first glance like post-Modern parodies, but they are too uncanny to be just another ironic endgame.

Each reads as a psychic hieroglyph in an encoded spiritual journey. Taken together, the paintings and sculptures form a kind of narrative. As Waldman acknowledges, the dwarf, like the hermaphroditic putti that appeared in his previous works, symbolizes his childhood self, and the woman who accompanies him, his feminine half—now split off and diminished. The bizarre birdcages, which seem like dollhouses crazily structured to reflect the traumas of domestic life, establish a link between the current, playful crop of works and Waldman’s previous, more openly psychoanalytic pieces, with their images of Freud’s famous couch and their references to Anna Freud (whom Sigmund, in a case of psychoanalytic incest, analyzed, thereby breaking his own “house” rules).

Unlike the earlier works, which often seemed ominous and unstable, the more recent pieces turn peculiar, dangerous feelings into funny ornaments on the house of the self, as if to indicate that such emotions have been mastered. Waldman’s work suggests that the psychoanalytic couch, which is at once a haven and a threat—a launching pad into the dangerous unconscious from within the safety of the psychoanalytic situation—has been transformed into a psychoanalytic house, as secure and strange as the couch it displaced. His allegories of the self in free if troubled flight indicate that it is still possible to invest emotionally in the decadent ruin that art has become.

Donald Kuspit