New York

Janine Gordon

John Gibson Gallery

In these slight, flawed but promising pictures the subjects are young Hispanic men from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. That they are also gang members is of little importance, for the iconography does not immediately mark them as such the way wings do angels.

Gordon depicts them at home, among themselves, often bare-chested, laughing, wrestling on beds, striking poses; the major notes are patience, tenderness, tolerance, gaiety, and sweetness. True, glazed eyes and dreamy smiles suggest drugs, as does a picture of two men, their parted lips almost touching, sharing a puff of smoke. But drug use is not necessarily a sign of gang membership, nor is horseplay with homoerotic overtones. The gallery explains the apparent eroticism as a “bonding experience . . . essential to survival in gang life.” However, nothing in Gordon’s imagery suggests that Greenpoint isn’t as voluptuous and safe outside as it appears to be inside. The cultural information here is meager, consisting, in picture after picture, of jeans, haircuts, and the decor of a few rooms. In short, this is not reportage. Gordon has transformed the men into figures in a fanciful world whose nature is poetic, whose mode is lyrical.

As an artist Gordon possesses a degree of passion, empathy, verve, and reach. She is sensitive to planes, line, pose, glance, mood, and the sculptural qualities of drapery; some compositions are distinguished by complexity and repose. In a few pictures of tenderness, and one or two of exuberance, the pleasure is so specifically esthetic that it recalls similar moments in widely dissimilar (and much stronger) earlier art: Mars and Venuses, bacchanals, males gazing at naked sleeping women. Unfortunately most of the pictures remain clumsy, superficial, and inexpressive. Perhaps, at 28, Gordon is not yet a fully self-conscious artist; perhaps, she at times loses sight of her task. Her web-site features pictures and text that recount her sexual relationships with the gang, in which account the men are always her lovers, never her subjects. Maybe it was a collapse of esthetic distance, an inability to see and treat her lovers as her models that damaged her art, led to melodrama, repetition, a mechanical handling of the figure, and, eventually, bathos.

Still, the transformation of subjects from life into figures in art is rare these days. If Gordon can sustain, develop, and refine her work so that her subjects become characters in her art, lovers in her pastorals, heroes on her quests, then when she takes their picture, she’ll have joined them to such companions as will keep them safe forever.

Ben Lifson