New York

Elliott Puckette

Kasmin | 293 Tenth Avenue

The word “decorative” has carried a pejorative connotation in criticism ever since Clement Greenberg. What makes Elliott Puckette’s paintings interesting is that, rather than integrate the decorative in a larger expressive purpose, the artist finds expressive purpose within the decorative itself. Her meandering lines, which at times scroll baroquelyincised with a razor, they recall the elaborate linear fantasies that Albrecht Dürer inscribed in the margins of his unfinished prayer book for Maximilian Icommunicate excitement, perhaps because they lead nowhere in particular, even as their curves evoke the female body. They bring to mind the scrambled contours of an odalisque, fragments of an intricate idea of the feminine.

Puckette’s washy, drippy surfaceswhich, in their own way, brood on the voidhave a similar erotic nervousness. Her decorative conveys a desire unsure of yet excited by itselfor perhaps only a sense of misguided jouissance. Indeed, automatism, which is implicit in her lines, is a kind of masturbatory activity, a spilling of the seeds of self-excitement in a naive search for originality. If, as Roland Barthes says, jouissance is “pleasure without separation,” that is, erotic transcendence, then the free-floating contours, or boundaries, in Puckette’s Reckoning and Tyne, both 1999, can be read as traces of separation. But they also suggest a discomfort with pleasurea dissonance within the field of radiant color that is the substance of her paintings. Sensuousness abounds in Puckette’s works, signaling their homage to the pleasure principle, but there is something jarring about her unsettled lines. They seem foreplay to a consummation that never quite comes off. Weirdly forced, her lines are the most interestingindeed, redeemingaspect of her paintings, because their suggestion of aborted pleasure throws a monkey wrench into the abstract luxe of her titillating surfaces.

Puckette is at her best when she uses the ellipse and tondo to frame her abstractions. Their curvilinearity gives the works body, even as it reaffirms the suaveness of her lines. The rectangle disrupts the flow of the lines, making them less suggestive of the infiniteless like gestures in a void. One cannot help thinking of Ingres’s harem tondo and seeing Puckette’s lines as illicitly heaving and embracing bodies, as vestiges of transgressive passion. Such associations hardly add up to full-fledged interpretations, but they do convey the lively, complex sense of pleasure, however distilled, in Puckette’s pictures. In short, abstraction remains home to pure pleasure as well as pure transcendence—the two are not unrelated—which makes one wonder why there has to be any attempt to represent reality, that is, to construct an illusion that laboriously communicates what can be spontaneously evoked by surface or intimated by carefully manicured color alone.

Donald Kuspit