New York

Jess von der Ahe

Jay Grimm Gallery

Perhaps it’s a mark of my own postfeminism (or just squeamishness) that I assumed the blood in von der Ahe’s work was drawn from her arm. Taking the politics out of menstrual blood is certainly one of the artist’s accomplishments: Rather than provocation and shock (à la Tracey Emin’s used tampons) or a sort of disingenuous detachment (as with Warhol’s abstractions created with urine), von der Ahe goes for seduction and enchantment, affirming beauty while divorcing it from any ’70s-era feminist context. Her choice of menstrual blood over other types seems more related to limiting herself to a strictly regulated supply. That’s just one of the self-imposed restrictions of her art, in which blood and gold leaf are applied to panels prepared with gesso and marble dust (the ultimate neutral white, like a bottomless glass of milk) and coated in shiny flawless resin. Given the inertness of the latter materials, von der Ahe’s blood is her agent for expression—her version of Robert Ryman’s white paint.

In contrast to her first, protean show in 2000 at this venue—thirty-eight small works hung salon style—here von der Ahe decreased the number and increased the size, including a triptych at four by nine feet and four paintings at four by three feet (all works Untitled, 2001). They pack a graphic punch from a distance but yield incredibly delicate detail up close. An army of bubbles coalesces at the center of one, then radiates out in a scattershot pattern. Corpuscle- and cell-like shapes are plentiful, as are other forms with myriad associations: eyeballs, candies, toy balls, folk-art flower-stars, seashells, planets. There are plump donuts incised with lines, marbleized blobs, and areas of crazing patterns as in glaze on pottery.

Two works in which a gold-leaf background dominates are evocative of Japanese art. Patterns of red-and-white swirls and concentric circles mimic each other in one panel, recalling stylized details from a seascape: octopus tentacles, squid, starfish. On the opposite wall, bubbles cluster around undulating, sinuous horizontal lines, their varying shades and thicknesses lending a three-dimensional quality and suggesting more waves and seafoam—or perhaps hillsides and shrubbery. Another painting resembles an enlarged detail or the versa) of an ancient manuscript, with the minutiae in its nooks and crannies reminiscent of Gustav Klimt and other artists of the Vienna Secession. The triptych has the sparest composition: Puffy white cloudlike forms meander across a gold ground lined along the bottom with blood bubbles, a rogue one floating above.

Von der Ahe’s paintings are so voluptuous, so simple yet sumptuous that they risk vapidity. Her art has a hothouse hauteur, its rococo sensuousness reigned in by a strict sense of design. What saves it is the powerful, primal aura of the gold and blood (on some level, von der Ahe equates their preciousness), even as the attenuated beauty of those media requires a protective coating. The resin gives the work a remoteness, like covetable consumer goods shrink-wrapped or displayed solitarily in a vitrine. Ultimately, the chilly formality is balanced by intimacy and expression. Call it deeply decorative.

Julie Caniglia