New York

Richard Artschwager

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

It’s a wonderful idea: take a seemingly mundane, nondescript subject—potatoes—and treat it in a grand formal manner. The potato is, of course, a proverbial staple of life—one only has to think of the Irish potato famine—as well as a symbol of shit. Richard Artschwager’s genius in these paintings is to mine such imagery while formally treating potatoes as a collection of so many eccentrically textured shapes. After all, the potato is as likely a module as Carl Andre’s Hartford boulders, and while Artschwager’s spuds aren’t arranged in neat rows, the effect is the same—an (unwitting?) satire of the early Minimalist premise that any old material could make artistic (or quasi-artistic) sense, depending on its “phenomenological” display.

Artschwager seems at once to affirm and deny that such display makes us acutely aware of the innocent sensuousness and “strategic” givenness of mundane objects: travel from ordinary object to extraordinary art is arduous, and the subject tends to “regress” to the ordinarily given object. Subject matter has a way of taking its toll on the art, and making it seem like a strange version of life. But the pretensions of Minimalism are not the only thing on Artschwager’s mind; he seems to be mocking painting as well, both old master and Modernist. The solemn gray of his potatoes, the exquisite detail of their surfaces, their alloverness—the way they take over the canvas (Potatoes II) and, when they don’t, the way we become aware of the canvas edges (Potatoes V)—all point to a tongue-in-cheek treatment of “the artistic.” It is as though Artschwager is showing us how Poussin might have treated a subject better left to the brothers Le Nain, but how the brothers Le Nain, wanting to be Poussinesque, forgot how humble that subject is.

Artschwager’s potatoes are eloquently framed, even claustrophobically so. In his still-life treatment, they’re ominous, banal yet sinister, seemingly on the verge of tumbling out of the picture and crushing the viewer. Artschwager’s trick has long been to take something we wouldn’t ordinarily pay careful attention to and force it down our throats, and here the plainness of the potatoes becomes confrontational. It has been argued that the sum and substance of art consists in its defamiliarizing effect, and Artschwager shows that when something loses its familiarity it becomes threatening.

The pictures are quietly brilliant: the angles of the frame and the elliptical potatoes—the geometrical and the organic—uneasily rub against each other. Homogeneous potatoes are differentiated by being conceived and located on the canvas in geometric terms. The overall effect is uncanny, at once grim and grand—a plentiful staff of life has the look of a deathly gray moraine. For all their formal strengths, the paintings have an allegorical bite. If the ego corresponds to the task of integrating the life instincts and the death instincts, as psychoanalyst Leon Grinberg argues, these paintings are full of ego. The potatoes seem to consolidate into a front against the world, even as they seem to be nothing more than its apocalyptic debris.

Donald Kuspit