New York

Mary Esch

Bronwyn Keenan Gallery

Confronted with the human figure, a lot of artists anxiously adopt a defensively kitschy style. Sean Landers depicts himself and others as apes, Lisa Yuskavage unapologetically sexualizes her subjects, and Nicole Eisenman beats a path down the low road of scatology. The results are what we’ve come to appreciate as “bad painting,” painting that confounds technical acumen with a determined weirdness. This is the stance taken by Minneapolis artist Mary Esch, whose slightly exaggerated, cartoony painting and enigmatic vocabulary subvert familiar aesthetic categories—portraiture, illustration, decoration.

Esch’s first solo show in New York was dominated thematically and spatially by Contemplative Pirates (all works 1998), a large work made of thirty-five silk-screened squares of paper fitted together to cover much of one gallery wall with a pattern of castaways, sinking galleons, and a skull-and-crossbones motif. The elaborately decorative blue, pink, and red tableau resembles a Disneyfied pastiche of eighteenth-century wallpaper. On this mundane level, the piece comments on the numbing gestalt of the designed environment, on how one’s surroundings can be so aggressive and yet almost invisible, like the white noise of bad carpeting (part of the paper was even cut out to accommodate a pipe near the floorboard—a wry accounting for such a pedestrian intrusion). Closer inspection of the piratical iconography, however, reveals a lascivious undertone to the work’s mimicking of decor. The sly glance of one castaway intimates that there’s more pleasure than misery to be had in these isolated environs, inhabited by saucy wenches, curvaceous dyke pirates bearing very long swords, and half-clad bodies reclining suggestively against trees.

The show’s title, “Contemplatives and Idlers,” seems less a reference to the subjects of Esch’s work and more an invitation to consider the curiosities beyond the surfaces of these moments and vignettes. A Funny Duchess, one of several portraits, depicts a woman posed as though for a formal portrait (hands folded, looking directly at the viewer), though she is subjected to gentle distortions. Her facial features are exaggerated, her hands are enormous and very masculine, and, strangest of all, she bears a strong resemblance to Mia Farrow. The picture almost represents the metamorphosis of Farrow’s persona from Frank’s nubile chick in the ’60s to the neurotic frump of Husbands and Wives. Duchess elicits flashes of near recognition—is this an overexposed celebrity, an eighteenth-century aristocrat, or your once-sort-of-pretty Aunt Harriet? A composite picture of female identity emerges from the vague familiarity of the artist’s imagery.

Esch’s caricatures and tactics of pastiche are similar to those used by Eisenman—the hints of art-historical references and forms, the doing and undoing of the possibilities of drawing, an oversexed depiction of female figures—but hers are not Eisenman’s zaftig nudies. Their sexuality is more timid; their costumes and piggish, upturned noses peculiar but refined. These lady buccaneers are pretty cool, but it’s a self-conscious, awkward kind of coolness. Esch has tapped into a hyperawareness of the body and a certain kind of fashionability that is sometimes a bit precious; though the work may be too mannered, it is exactly that nervous stylization that draws you in.

Meghan Dailey