New York

Leemour Pelli

Daneyal Mahmood Gallery

To paint an X-rayed body, as Leemour Pelli does in the works in her first solo exhibition at Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, is to confront several of the same formal problems that Wilhelm Röntgen’s 1895 discovery posed to early-twentieth-century artists. How does such an affirmation of the inadequacy of human perception hypostatize, and up the ante on, the task of picturing the unseen? What relationships of solid/void, surface/depth, and transparency/opacity does X-ray imagery occasion? Beyond issues of form, rendering skulls and bones engages the weightiest of weighty matters, that realization had by Hans Castorp, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), upon seeing his hand under a fluoroscope: “. . . [H]e beheld a familiar part of his body, and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die.”

Pelli’s project is heavy, in other words, and self-consciously so. One work is titled A Barb of Sorrow (After Kierkegaard), 2007; three others also reference Ted Hughes’s bleak Crow poems, and the press release claims the artist’s figures as “a metaphor for the human condition.” Remarkably, she is equal to the charge. The eight large paintings and five smaller studies on view skirt the potential for ham-handed contrivance implicit in their theme and amount to an affecting rumination on the life force as pitted against the certainties of bone and death. This is accomplished, first, by the ontological bait-and-switch of representing skeletons, parts and whole, as animate entities trying to commune with one another. Often, as in Untitled (Couple I) and Untitled (Couple II) (both 2007), two interlocking rib cages terminate in a single pair of leg bones, implying an attempted joining, and most skeletons bear faces—sunken-eyed, transferlike smudges that are best glimpsed sidelong, as if they belonged to anamorphs. Pelli’s deft spatial maneuvers ratify her subjects’ limbo state. The penetration implied by the X-ray is reiterated in intermittent, shadowy subterranean forms only apparent on close inspection, but such intimations of verticality are counterposed by the embedding of figures in thick lateral swaths. In a few paintings, stacked rib-cage bones extend into horizontal white lines that reach the edges of the canvas, locking them in place.

In palette and subject, this show found Pelli moving further inside the bodies she has portrayed for several years, replacing an earlier preference for flesh pink with deep crimson and substituting bones for physiques with visible or exterior organs. Her red, an indubitably bloody carmine, brings out a considerable dexterity: These works are equal parts wet and chalky, thin wash and impasto, polished and roughed-up. Yet the color, paired only with a pallid ivory to signal an alternation between blood (life) and bone (death), bears a substantial emotional load, and three black-and-white paintings were all the more moving for their austerity. “Love” Said God, Say “Love,” II, 2006, depicts an embracing skeletal couple who, though ringed by memento mori—chalkboardlike bones, an apparitional skull, a few glyphs of the duo in solid form—endeavor to dance.

The exhibition also included two floorbound sculptures, one, Crows (After the Painted Bird), 2007, of nine black crows gathered around a tenth, dead the other, Untitled (Hearts), 2007, a set of cast concrete anatomical hearts and a masked visage. Unabashedly literal, they check the tendency of elements in Pelli’s paintings to slide toward decorative abstraction. Absent these obdurate symbols of mortality, it would be tempting to read the sternum in Two Skeletons on a Day in May I, 2005–2006, as a butterfly, or to see the rows of rib cages in Collapse of Love, 2007, as a grid of hearts.

Lisa Turvey