New York

Peter Rostovsky

The Project

THE QUESTION AT THE HEART of Peter Rostovsky's recent work is one that haunts many artists: To what extent must a contemporary painter confront the medium's long-running critical dismantling? On the surface, Rostovsky makes use of a now-familiar brand of humor to, in essence, apologize for carrying on with a practice that has routinely been written off over the past few decades; the knowing wit that infuses his work conveys the requisite degree of skepticism toward the discipline. Yet such qualifiers cannot hide a serious attachment to technique, the very emphasis on craft that the parodic gesture aims to undermine.

For Rostovsky, it's all a matter of where you stand-in terms of both history and the gallery space itself. In the middle of the room was Anamorph, 2001, a seven-foot-tall steel column placed on a circular digital print of distorted snow-covered mountains. Reflected in the column's shiny base, the majestic scene snapped into focus, looking not unlike the setting for a Coors commercial. Here the sublime was little more than a cheap gag, reduced as it was to a knee-high image that wobbled and stretched as you walked around the sculpture. Two paintings in the show, Epiphany Model 2 and Epiphany Model 3, both 2001, also targeted the awe before nature expressed by nineteenth-century artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Albert Bierstadt. In front of each canvas, a small plastic doll (a slightly altered action figure of X-Files character Fox Mulder) stood on a pedestal facing the painting's sweeping view; one was a horizontal seascape, the other a seven-foot tondo painted in the uplifting style of Baroque church domes, giving the viewer's miniature stand-in a glimpse into a luxurious parting of the clouds.

The paintings are well executed and show off Rostovsky's considerable technical skills. And though the jokiness and anachronistic sentimentality help distance him from his historical predecessors (while also firmly establishing their influence), this show wasn't cynical. Its inherent skepticism seems more directed toward acknowledging the fact that a painter no longer has easy recourse to the unmediated expression of heartfelt desire. Such a sense of blocked access is metaphorically illustrated in the striking nine-by-six-foot painting Eclipse, 2000. A large brown-black blotch nearly fills the canvas, defining the space inside as a lacuna, a gap of monumental proportions. Yet it also holds up as a compelling image, without resorting to props like the dolls. Still, the painting was placed in a part of the gallery that prevented the viewer from stepping back and observing it from a distance; the silver funhouse column got in the way.

Rostovsky seems to have set aside his hesitations in Bathers, 2001, a quiet group of twelve small panels hung in a tight row. Each image presents one person swimming just offshore in a frothy ocean. The swimmers' heads are all in the same location relative to the frame, and the effect was one of cinematic repetition. The difference in tone and the lack of clumsy destabilizing devices made these works seem grounded, straightforward, even sincere. For a moment such an approach no longer felt so obsolete.

Gregory Williams