New York

Frank Moore

The extensive recent exhibition of Frank Moore’s last paintings and selected earlier works revealed an obsessive intelligence offset by a dewy-eyed (if winking) indulgence in over-the-top fantasy and shameless kitsch. Moore, who died of AIDS in 2002 at age forty-eight, employed an elementary school affability toward ends both macabre and slapstick, expressive of the vast humor required to grapple meaningfully with such tropes of our contemporary apocalypse as wanton materialism, the degradation of the biosphere, disease, and the Faustian bargains struck in the biological sciences.

One of Moore’s better-known paintings is Debutantes, 1992, a polemical allegory whose searing humor issues from outrage. In the foreground, two wide-eyed boys, one black, one white, stroll in an awkward, partial embrace through a sort of nightmare schoolyard, tugged by a Scottish terrier toward an androgynous, exotic-looking figure impaled on a spike. Standard saccharine imagery is eerily employed throughout the painting in a satire of relentless conformism, in conjunction with torture scenes (a naked man bound in chains anally impaled on a wooden device by impassive torturers, a figure crucified upside down by men in turbans) framed by beds of lurid flowers. The razor wire–topped chain-link fence that snakes behind it all features pink triangles; conjured here is the arbitrarily cruel and potentially lethal world the gay child grows up in, if never quite out of.

Moore’s visual language seems born out of a genuine populist impulse, and in these works joking and sincerity are indistinguishable. In Bearded Clam, 1997, a disarmingly tacky Neptunian realm contains two women making love inside a gaping mollusk; in one view it’s a crude visual pun, in another an affecting, erotic fantasy-scape. Free for All, 1997, couldn’t drive its point home any more directly; it features a bald eagle with human hands for talons swooping to grasp a CD player. Thanks to a miniature video camera embedded in the painting’s “rustic” pine-branch frame, viewers literally see themselves in the work, caught up in its frenzy of nationalism, celebrity, and commerce. If these are one-liners, they’re amiably delivered, and we’re glad that someone has made the point.

Moore was a talented miniaturist, as is evidenced in many of the works (especially those made just before his death) that explicitly address the impact of bio-engineering. The double helix recurs, hovering in the artist’s vision like those strands of protein that bob in our ocular fluid. In Study for Black Pillow II, 2002, we see an giant agribusiness under a sky full of chemical symbols and ears of corn with computer keyboards for kernels: No landscape or life-form is unaffected by chemical or genetic meddling.

Moore painted Farewell, 1989, as a response to the news that he and his partner had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. In the foreground, two trembling flowers, a terrified glass eyeball in the center of each, are about to be snipped by garden shears; visible through a window behind them is a barren expanse of tree stumps and mucky sky. Moore recognized a link between the destruction of the natural environment and the peril to his own life. Such epic loss he mourned with savage humor, that second sight which remains the outcast’s gift and only revenge.

Tom Breidenbach