Ashley Macomber

Ashley Macomber uses paint to suggest the contours of skin and fur with a precision of line more commonly associated with engraving. Her portraits of human-animal hybrids have a stiffness reminiscent of early New England portraiture, and her muted palette is accentuated by the choice of gouache and acrylic in preference to oil. Macomber proves herself technically proficient—she’s particularly adept at balancing warm and cool colors—but falls down when it comes to her work’s conceptual underpinnings. Though her application is seductive in its exactitude, the work’s raison d’être is on shakier ground, characterized as it is by underdeveloped ideas and trite faux-literary allusions.

Macomber’s recent exhibition at Kavi Gupta Gallery, “The Clearing,” paired five works on paper with a suite of six paintings propped up on white pedestals and arranged as if they were figures on a stage: The paintings were cordoned off by a heavy black theatrical curtain that nearly bisected the exhibition space and introduced an obvious dichotomy between “actors” and “audience”; the works on paper, a 2005 series that depicts sea mammals with human heads or torsos, represented the latter. The drawings’ subjects employ hand gestures and bear accoutrements that are apparently symbolic—although what, exactly, they symbolize remains ambiguous. Viewer V (all works 2005), for example, pairs the head of a porpoise with the body of a woman wearing a red dress with a plunging neckline. The figure holds a knife in one hand and clutches its dress in the other, a bloody gash on its wrist adding pseudo-allegorical heft. Viewer III depicts a seal-headed figure cloaked in kelp, human hands twisting the pearl ring on its finger.

Many of the paintings depict a collection of anthropomorphized wolves and deer, and all but two place these beasts, clothed in fairy-tale ensembles, in a dark wood. Braided nooses, elbow-length leather gloves, tiaras, daggers, and red robes attempt to imbue these creatures with the stink of meaning, yet the supposed tales of redemption, virtue, and honor evoked in Macomber’s prototypical portraits add up to little more than illusory fragments. Considered individually, their composition is formulaic, and as a series they are weighed down by overweaning symbolism and lazily signaled mythical intimation. As a cast of dramatic characters their roles as protagonists and antagonists are oblique, quashing the moral authority and critical reflexivity that frame classical theater and literature.

In Brother/Sister: The Codependents, Macomber renders two young deer in hooded tunics in front of a stand of leafless trees. Clasping hands in a fey show of emotional solidarity, the figures stand back-to-back, yoked together by an immaculately painted rope that encircles their necks. And as if the deluge of clichés weren’t already overwhelming, Macomber records a tiny reflection of another painting, The Heroine, Voice and Voicelessness, in one lens of a pair of spectacles held up by a whale in Viewer IV. The Three Fates: Past, Present and Future explores painting’s potential for illusion by precisely echoing the composition of Brother/Sister, which was hung directly opposite, an arrangement that also underscored Macomber’s attraction to dramatic narrative. She alludes to the earnestness of moral fables while her shrewd attention to detail acknowledges the provincial virtues embraced by early American portraitists. Yet the upshot is a postmodern metanarrative that is not only incoherent but also, sadly, empty.

Michelle Grabner