New York

Robert Jessup

Joseph Rickards Gallery

Robert Jessup creates bizarrely torqued grown-up fables that unite the everyday and the strange. With their thick, icing-like paint and candy-inspired palette, his canvases are both seductive and slightly off-putting. The symbolism of any indi-vidual element is refracted by the other associations he sets up, so that every scene inspires a host of dynamic readings mildly at odds with the others. Like the cartoon reality in which straightening a crooked picture only makes the room itself tilt, Jessup’s world is that of domestic space gone weird.

This exhibition of six paintings was dominated by a large diptych. In The Recipe for a Perfect Pie (all works 1999), it’s hard to tell whether the scene is reality or dream. The canvas on the left seems an allegory of waking life, although there are surreal aspects—the muffin-size pie hovering over the blank book that the hearty young couple consults, the monkey on the husband’s shoulder wearing a tiny pink fez. The vignette’s domestic, storybook innocence is quietly belied by a longer look. It’s unclear whether the couple is gazing at the pie or whether the man is coolly staring past his meaty hands, one of which seems to point to us or beckon us in. Equally engrossing are the awkward geometric strategies, especially the dark-green and yellow floor tiles, with which Jessup establishes and tweaks perspective.

In the panel on the right the same couple is outside. The man slumbers partway up the wrong side of a wooden stepladder whose front leg he has sawed into and whose rungs hold, from bottom to top, a fish, a wedge of cheese, and an apple. The items littering the ground—tools, foodstuffs, a toppled jug, a toy duck on wheels, a black bird—seem both carefully random and totemically strange. The mythic associations of the apple are obvious, for example, but Jessup complicates matters by including a solitary orange in a topiary. Instead of a symbol to wrap up the narrative in a neat Freudian package, we find apples and oranges confirming—or warning us off?—our urge to compare elements of the work. An ambiguity between motion and stasis heightens the drama. Has the man dozed off with his hand on the saw, or is he laboring while he sleeps? The inclination of the female figure’s head doesn’t quite allow us to judge whether she is also sleeping in mid-gesture, the head of her ax buried in a log.

The smaller paintings borrow and alter images from The Recipe for a Perfect Pie. The modification is invariably menacing: The log the woman is chopping becomes a stump to which the man is tied in Mask; the diminutive house on the chair has a serpent coiled around it in Snake. Here Jessup’s symbolism is especially pointed: The snake, with its tail twitching near its tongue, resembles the alchemical symbol of generation and creation. Its presence serves as an acknowledgment of the immutable bonds between potency and magic, fertility and derangement, and highlights the sexual nature of the drama the artist depicts. Jessup, who has called this work “an allegory of marriage,” conjures a palpably sinister version of the objects, tales, routines, and traditions that make our lives orderly and tolerable. Somewhere between dream and reality, wakefulness and sleep, motion and stillness, domesticity and wilderness is where we find ourselves in Jessup’s work, almost—never fully—home.

Tom Breidenbach