New York

Julie Roberts

Sean Kelly Gallery

By the time you got to the four views of domestic architecture in Julie Roberts’s recent exhibition “Home,” you’d already met Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and the victims of Jack the Ripper, plus a group of artists, poets, and figures from history and literature, all seen dead. Holmes and Watson came first, as if to promise that the show’s mood would be set by the detective tale’s calming pleasure in fatality, gentle mental challenge, and, in the case of Conan Doyle, its agreeable loll in Victoriana. Past this opener, though, you fell into actual horrors: a painting and eight graphite drawings, mostly in the oval portrait format, showing women of a corpse-like mien that is usually ambiguous but sometimes quite gruesomely categorical. Home? I think I’ll find a hotel.

These painstakingly executed works on Jack the Ripper make blatant the morbidity underlying Roberts’s art. It is equally obvious in her paintings of Ingres, Hugo, Rodin, Munch, and Cocteau on their deathbeds and in her remakes of well-known portrayals of the dead: Hamlet’s Ophelia, the French revolutionary Marat, and the eighteenth-century teen poet Thomas Chatterton. Even when her work gets homier—when she portrays pieces of furniture, say—she chooses an electric chair and an erotic autostimulator that might be some kind of torture device. It is in this latter work, in fact, that the overlap of Eros and Thanatos, perhaps Roberts’s main interest, puts in its most overt appearance: This seat is designed for pleasure, for life, but like the all-too-similar electric chair, it seems an instrument of lethal contortion and constraint. Similarly, in her paintings of artists and writers Roberts’s focus seems to be not just death but an equivocal death-in-life: These people have outlived their own mortality, which, given their enduring public lives, has a shocking intimacy.

Roberts’s sex-and-death chairs, alas, may be a little heavy-handed, especially when paired, as they were here. At over six by six feet each, that’s an awful lot of Eros/Thanatos. I hate to fall back on form and medium, rather than the conceptual, indeed Foucauldian approach to painting that Roberts takes (in extending the philosopher’s grasp of the coercive power of hospitals and other institutions to suburban houses and the violence of private life), but her art functions better for me when she uses a smaller scale that allows her more luxuriance in paint. In fact, the first thing that strikes the viewer of her most intense works is the peculiarity of her paint handling, particularly in her figures: Rather than try for subtle transitions and shadings to convey the modulations of skin, Roberts takes a paint-by-numbers approach, drawing the body’s relief with thick, solid lines and whorls recalling the tinted bands of a contour map. The color, meanwhile, leans to viscous browns, taupes, and grays, while the surface is slick, shiny, almost greasy, full of oil’s creamy density—a surrogate flesh, which is odd given the faintly ghastly appearance of Roberts’s hands and faces, which could be those of dolls. A couple of works here, Dolly, 2002, and Little Fella, 2003, actually seem to show dolls, given the wee plinths on which the figures stand, but that is the only clue—they are neither more nor less lifelike than Roberts’s Holmes and Watson or than her artists’ corpses. It is probably to Roberts’s credit that the undead quality of her painting speaks more articulately of her interests and skills than some of her subjects do.

David Frankel