New York

Karel Funk

The great recycling bin in which art history, critical theory, and market analysis dispose of their castoffs is crawling with post-ironic ironists scavenging for material not yet reworked. And as anyone who has browsed for high-end vintage clothing knows, “composite neo-retro” can look fabulous. Karel Funk is one such smart ragpicker, assembling an audacious mix of clashing styles and strategies that takes in Ellsworth Kelly, Alex Katz and Andy Warhol, Northern Renaissance altarpieces, photorealism, and the J. Crew catalogue, as well as, of course, “the male gaze.”

Key to this eclecticism is extreme simplicity. The eleven paintings in Funk’s first solo show all adopt the same format. Each is a roughly square wood panel less than twenty-four inches across depicting, in acrylic, the head and shoulders of a college-age man. The faces of the painter’s young subjects are obscured by the geometries of brightly colored GORE-TEX hoods, collars, and visors, the precise details of their skin and hair picked out against a stark blank ground. All of the men are white, and not one of them meets our eyes.

Formally Funk’s paintings are studies in angles. Like Kelly he enjoys abutting sharp lozenges of color to construct deceptively flat spaces; as in Katz there is the suggestion that the planar clarity of his compositions be taken as symbolic of his sitters’ personalities or lack thereof. Slippery and inorganic, the structural fabric of the pictures shapes their emotional detachment; like models in advertisements, these characters are their clothes. Locked into traditional head-on, profile, or three-quarter views, Funk’s subjects withdraw into their jackets’ shiny folds as if the rumpled triangle of a red or apple-green hood pushed back on the shoulders or the blue curve of one pulled over the head could stand as emblems of a monastic order. Their downcast expressions are variously demure, sullen, or contemplative. Modestly handsome, young, and equipped for sport, these guys are automatically desirable. But their perfect vacancy slips past the fresh-faced virility peddled by The North Face to congeal in motionless enigma. We are drawn to them, but their static/vatic silence yields no access.

Given Funk’s savvy, this vacuum of desirous attention easily accommodates art ideas—skillful, handmade painting lives parasitically off photography; our urge toward cathexis with a sexy or otherwise special individual rebounds as admonishment about commodity and spectacle. More interesting is Funk’s return to discussions about what it means to look libidinally at passive, attractive bodies arrayed for us by a painter who has also, by implication, looked at, framed, and possessed them. Granted, the religious donors and house-proud burghers depicted by Funk’s Flemish masters expected to receive greedy gazes, too. But the exemplary piety of their averted eyes and the wealth of their draped textiles are self-consciously, self-praisingly on display. Attaching their names to their likenesses (like figures by Warhol or Katz), such sitters let it be known that they colluded with their portraitists. By contrast Funk’s anonymous models serve him by rendering up their faces as mute, scopic texture—they do not act; they appear. The traditional object in such circumstances is, of course, female, and displayed en deshabille. Thus undergirding Funk’s endeavor are equations proposing that girl = boy, nude = covered, and possession = emptiness. Funk is, frankly, a fetishist. The tiny red tab of a zipper, the pores on a chin, or the glimpse of a contrasting T-shirt hidden under a parka enact an obsession that replaces the whole with the part, like Degas’s thing for tutus or Ingres’s long, fleshlike swatches of satin. When the bundled-up, white, Ivy League dude is posed like a saint in a niche or a john in a mug shot—and the result reads as an airless, uncarnal odalisque, virgin or maja—the homoerotic gaze is on its way to polymorphous neutrality. What happens next?

Frances Richard