New York

Muntean/Rosenblum

Jack Tilton Gallery

Recently I met with a well-scrubbed guyin a bright-blue shirt who had a shiny new pencil, also blue, tucked jauntily behind his ear. Something about him struck me as odd, and later I realized that he was mimicking, albeit in a different color, the pink-shirted and be-penciled Banana Republic model then appearing on bus shelters all over the city. Of course it’s obvious that we’re awash in a sea of images that dictate how we look, act, and think (though most of us don’t take the cues so literally), and it’s equally obvious that these images are mostly shallow, bereft of meaning. Muntean/Rosenblum rather soberly accept this status quo as the starting point in their work, appropriating material from a panoply of fashion and lifestyle magazines, homing in on comely youths posing moodily in trendy clothing—patterned shifts, cargo pants, and the latest sneaker and T-shirt styles.

The Austrian duo’s paintings and comic books (they also produce performances, sculpture, and photographs incorporating the two) transplant their models into various urban and suburban settings or bland interiors. The compositions are consistently rounded at the corners like the frames of certain cartoons (or TV and computer screens), with a resulting white margin for a caption at the bottom. Their style—or brand, if you will—brings to mind Raymond Pettibon’s philosophical musings and Karen Kilimnik’s obsession with the fashion-conscious zeitgeist. Muntean/Rosenblum, however, are determined to wring a little substance from this surfeit of style—to uncover some soul in spiffy Banana Republicans and other supremely self-aware young urbanites.

The text in these works, appropriated from magazines and books, consists of ruminative nuggets (“Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in”; “Misery does not want company—happiness does”) that may resonate or stand at odds with the image they caption. Either way they provide a sign of consciousness or even conscience behind Muntean/Rosenblum’s model army, who seem a little lost when removed from their glossy contexts. The narrative in the comic book Here It Is, 2000, is a chain of cryptic declarations (“Here is what happened . . . and yet what did happen? Nothing to speak of . . . there are no moments, only the seamless drift; . . . flux and flow, unstoppable, that’s all there is . . .”) that could serve as a spacey account of surfing twenty-first-century culture.

Muntean/Rosenblum also construct a spare symbolism of sorts. A white light switch and a black heavy-duty stereo speaker bracket a mixed-race couple at a party in Untitled (The Hardest Thing . . .), 1999, perhaps hinting at some dynamic in their relationship. Given the caption in Untitled (It is not easy . . .), 1999 (“It is not easy for handsome people to be themselves, or even try to be”), it seems that the shadow of a boxers-and-socks-clad youth might stand in for his “true” self behind the fetching facade. If this seems a little glib, remember that Muntean/Rosenblum’s subjects are the MTV generation, not intellectuals weaned on French theory. More complex is the center spread in Here It Is, which borrows equally from i-D magazine and Piero della Francesca—not just in the clumsy-yet-lyrical religiosity of the subjects’ poses (hands extended in benediction or clasped in prayer-like contemplation) and their gorgeously frosty remove, but also in the crisp blue sky and slim trees. Doggedly coaxing the spiritual from the superficial, Muntean/Rosenblum seem especially fond of saplings and houseplants, whose tenderness and vulnerability perhaps echo that of their nubile human counterparts.

By giving highly processed images a handmade patina via painting, Muntean/Rosenblum are conducting an introspective form of subversion through seduction—an appropriate strategy right now, in what seems to be the endgame in the quest for cool. At this moment, when earnestness and irony can easily flip-flop, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the artists’ comics among the ever-changing wares down at the local Urban Outfitters.

Julie Caniglia