New York

“The Risk of Existence”

Phyllis Kind Gallery

For an artist, orchestrating a salon around your own most recent work is a traditional act of hubris that dates to the eighteenth century. It’s also contemporary practice, a way to indulge the fantasy of imposing order on the world, charting your own ancestry of deceased influences, associating yourself with jeunesse dorée art stars, and colonizing the efforts of steadfast underknowns. Such a show always entails diplomacy and self-aggrandizement, involving returned favors, deep pockets, deeper flights of fancy, and an ability to wrestle with your own demons. Such a show also solves the problem of what to exhibit if, like Mark Greenwold, the curator of “The Risk of Existence,” you make only one painting a year.

This particular auto-curatorial act was an especially brilliant instance of anxious self-contextualization, in that the show (eighteen works by as many artists) got the visual and iconographic weights and balances just right. Small to midsize paintings, prints, and drawings were intermixed with rare discernment. Delicate filaments, mostly visual, some literary, linked disparate works in which high-keyed color, graphic precisionism, and over-the-top subject matter predominated.

Immortalized by Chuck Close (a key figure in the family romance that unfolds here) twenty years ago as a youthful bucktoothed geekster wearing aviator glasses and a virtuosically painted plaid shirt, Greenwold lives in Albany, New York. Indeed, his latter-day Magic Realist paintings have an upstate grit that I associate with William Kennedy’s novels, based in the same Hudson River city. For anyone meditating on family values, Greenwold’s new painting, The Risk of Existence (for Anya), 1997–98, all of 14 inches square, is bound to inspire a chill of recognition and horror: Ivan Albright meets Charles Addams. There, arrayed before a blazing colonial-style hearth, is a lineup of ghoulish family types—among them, a mewling little girl spread-eagled in a kilt on a Chippendale chair; a young drag queen proffering a tiny spectral ballerina in his palm; the wizened, balding person of the artist propping up a rigid elder in a plaid bathrobe (this appears to be Greenwold’s father, either dying or newly risen from the dead, for above him flies a human skull with wings); and a butch-coiffed mother type, grinning as she strangles herself. On the table in front lurks a long, sharp knife pointed at the figures. Who wouldn’t go in for murder, suicide, or delicate self-cutting, given such a filial crew?

The obsessive verisimilitude of Greenwold’s painting, with its pinpricked rendering of details like the china in the hutch and the candlestick reflected in the mirror, is obviously neo-Eyckian. Elsewhere in the show, a similar attention to polished surfaces and niggling details was visible in the work of Jim Nutt and in a small abstraction by James Siena (hanging next to a John Wesley interior) that features reedy painted lines scrawled into a boxy labyrinthine pattern. The Siena is a runic blank field, the Nutt a grotesque imaginary portrait, yet they float together in Greenwold’s mind’s eye.

Two keys to Greenwold’s work are a lapidary intimism and a close familiarity with the grid. Here, a corner grouping offered different depictions of pebbles: Vija Celmins’s gridded Desert Surface #2, 1992, hanging next to Catherine Murphy’s portrait of her husband, sculptor Harry Roseman, lying face down in rocks. Nearby, a small Myron Stout abstraction with bright bands of pink, purple, and yellow suggested a very intense cloisonné coat of many colors, as did a larger, diamond-gridded Chuck Close painting of William Wegman with similarly bright hues.

Neo-mannerist figuration reared its ugly head throughout the show, suggesting all sorts of rappel à l’ordre agendas, at once repressive and liberating. A small John Currin oil of big-breasted women sitting in the grass carried roughly the same exquisite weight as Paul Cadmus’s The Lid, 1990, a work in egg tempera depicting souls adrift in a coffin-shaped bark. A Balthus study for his “Wuthering Heights” illustrations (a Highlands allusion, like the plaids?) looked as charmingly recherche as the small, slightly kitsch Lucian Freud pastel, after the School of Fontainebleau, of one girl tweaking another’s teat.

The quasi-religious martyrdom of the modern artist, who has all too often been dismissed as a madman or a quack, was underlined in the choice of works by Blake (three illustrations for The Book of Job), Francis Bacon (neatly enough, a depiction of Blake’s death mask), Henry Darger (a massacre scene involving little girls), and Odd Nerdrum (a weird homoerotic recasting of the Dance of Salome). Sifting through all this evidence, you could argue that Greenwold, like Blake, sees himself as the afflicted Job. Perhaps like the bare-buttocked vestal in Lisa Yuskavage’s nearby Submit, Greenwold’s figure of the cross-dresser (in fact, his fourteen-year-old nephew) is a case of sublimated exhibitionism. All this self-revelation by means of indirection amplifies the strangeness of Greenwold’s own painting, lending it a historical weight, substantiating its sadomasochistic fantasies, and vindicating its obsessive sense of craft.

Brooks Adams is a writer who lives in New York.