New York

Keith Edmier/Richard Phillips

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

Both Keith Edmier and Richard Phillips are interested in popular memory of the ’60s and early ’70s and in exacting formal procedures that tweak realism toward something outlandish. Centering on Edmier’s sculptures, with a suite of drawings by Phillips in a decisive supporting role, this small show accepted nostalgia as its premise. Against this substrate, elegy morphed to cartoonish necrophilia, and the ultimate subject was a strangely conventional self-portraiture.

Edmier’s sculptures (both 1998) are discrete works, but as installed they functioned as a diptych. Both are highly detailed, life-size models, their verisimilitude contradicted by the fact that they are cast entirely in pink dental resin. Beverly Edmier, 1967 is a seated pregnant woman, stylish in a Marlo Thomas bob and Chanel suit. The flowers in A Dozen Roses are luxuriant, long-stemmed. Homage to the artist’s mother? Yes, but it’s not that simple. The wool suit on the figure is a recognizable copy of Jackie Kennedy’s famous Dallas garb, and the roses, tied with real satin ribbon, refer, more obliquely, to the bouquet the first lady carried that fateful day. Oddest of all, the demure mother-to-be lifts her pink silk blouse with a pink-gloved silicone hand. Her belly is blood-red, transparent, and the fetus—Keith himself, presumably—is visible inside.

Edmier thus devised a series of displacements. Mixing Pop cheerfulness with morbid fascination, the livid pinks suggested lipstick and Jell-O, but also mucus membrane and congealed blood. The outfit merged Beverly with Jackie. Keith, in Beverly’s lap, became the roses cradled in Jackie’s arms, which in turn became the dying JFK. Beverly also corresponded to the roses, as a young beauty doomed to fade.

Phillips’s five charcoal-and-chalk drawings (all 1999) extended and exploited these permutations. All but one presented variations on the vacant female face that is his trademark—lush, ersatz portraits based on ads and fashion spreads taken from ’70s magazines. The drawings are studies for Phillips’s monumental paintings, and he rarely exhibits them, but their intimate scale and newspapery feel were an apt foil for Edmier. In Untitled #1, a sneering girl bares a breast, the nipple obscured by a Smiley Face flat on the picture plane. In Blessed Mother, white male hands encircle the (again) pert bare breasts of a young black woman. Synching with Edmier’s eroticized mother portrait, this image also represented race in the exhibition’s compressed survey of ’60s tropes.

Phillips’s fifth image, Drawing for My Sweet Lord, was a somber headshot of what appeared to be Jesus, playing Shroud of Turin to Beverly Edmier as Pietà. It took a moment to realize why the eyeless, masklike face looked so familiar: It’s actually a portrait of George Harrison. Like the in-utero Keith, whose immanent presence is the focal point of Beverly Edmier, the omniscient non-gaze of My Sweet Lord provided a tacit surrogate for Phillips. Thus the equations proposed by the exhibition came full circle. Edmier = Jesus, Edmier = Kennedy, Kennedy = Jesus, Phillips = Jesus, Jesus = George Harrison. Artist = rock star/icon = god. Not a new idea, nor is it radical to propose a Jackie/Madonna/ groupie babe as that artist-god’s source and receptor, medium and audience. Phillips’s aggressively two-dimensional portrayal of female concupiscence gave Edmier’s sculptures a pornographic tinge they would not otherwise have projected, but in spite of the truly nostalgic picture of woman as a simulated handmaiden to male creativity, the work looked weird and good.

Frances Richard