New York

Andrew Ehrenworth

Continuing a trajectory from his earlier portraits of dogs whose faces appeared to be melting, Andrew Ehrenworth’s eleven new paintings are based on standard-issue photographs of grade-school children, although these faces are more Carrie than Marcia Brady. Enlarging what might have been wallet-size images to five-by-five or two-by-two-foot canvases, Ehrenworth intends to convey a generalized idea of childhood: Benjamin, Mary, Kate, Bill, Andrea, and Beth evoke kids he knew growing up in a New Jersey suburb. But the canvases look as if they’ve been rained on: Paint is applied in a very fluid state and allowed to run down the compositions vertically, with drips accumulating along the bottom edges. As the unnaturally bright, harsh colors trickle down, hair and clothing dissolve into abstractions, features become grotesquely misshapen and smeared.

The humor evident in Ehrenworth’s images of canines is absent in the new work. Beneath her pixie haircut, paint streaks down Andrea’s face so heavily that despite her shy smile, her countenance is diffused nearly to the verge of disappearance. Bill’s left eye is cartoonishly enlarged, while Kate cries a magenta tear as white and flesh-colored pigment wash over her chin. Many of the portraits’ disconcerting particulars emerge out of the physical properties of paint and its response to gravity. Connecting the outcome of his—and the paint’s—labors to chance effects provides Ehrenworth a comfortable distance from the often grotesque results, but this quasi-slacker, self-effacing stance doesn’t diminish his considerable skill as a painter. While the subject might evoke the genius loci of the Sears or Kmart portrait studio, the passages of bravura brushwork—such as the greenish-gold strokes of Mary’s hair and the lushly painted backgrounds—along with the large-scale format conjure the formal trappings of haute Abstract Expressionism. These painterly concerns meld tensely with the implicit ’70s kitsch (like the children’s Garanimals ensembles) and the sentimental subject matter.

Ehrenworth says “the disfiguration of the children . . . makes tangible the queasiness that nostalgia inspires.” The artist is reflecting on our culture’s fixation on the innocence of children, the way they often function as projection screens for adult anxieties about the past, present, and future (e.g., the eruption of collective post–school shooting anguish, examined in a suffocating fashion in the media by everyone from politicians to child shrinks to the ready-made empathetic mother figure/news anchor). These paintings are trenchant and genuinely disquieting, though, whether refracted through volatile issues or regarded simply for their visceral qualities. Ehrenworth embraces the collision of aesthetic aims and emotional content, both in the highest registers; to tread the uneasy line that divides the work’s formal and subjective elements is perhaps the point.

Meghan Dailey