New York

Vincent Desiderio

Vincent Desiderio is a painter—militantly so. Many of the paintings in this exhibition are ambitiously large (Sleep, 2008, is a mural, and When I Last Saw Paris, 2007, a triptych) and two, Sumo and Quixote, are still in progress, perhaps exhibited to draw attention to the artist’s painterly process. In fact, Desiderio began his career as a sort of reluctant expressionist, fascinated with “fugitive” gestures, each temporally suggestive—the grandly bloody splotch pictured on the right panel of When I Last Saw Paris reads as a memento mori of this fascination. But he quickly abandoned “straightforward” gesturalism as obsolete and beside the point of what became his forte: the “human aesthetic,” as Edward O. Wilson called it, or more particularly the figure, and even more particularly the body.

Sleep is a panoramic display of male and female nudes, partially covered, and usually paired in sexually suggestive positions—a continuum of flesh that, although almost dead in appearance, is erotically alive. Nude I and II, both 2008, have the same aura of remoteness and intimacy, and likewise use a kind of tenebrism, though this quality is most evident in Pigs, 2006. In this work, Desiderio also uses traditional symbolism to make a spiritual point (ironically?), the three very material dead pigs suggesting the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves, just as the subjects of Rembrandt’s etching The Three Trees supposedly do. The bulky wrestlers in Sumo are seminude, and so are the two women in the left panel of When I Last Saw Paris. The black the Mennonites wear in Mourning and Fecundity, 2007, conveys sturdiness and moral uprightness, recalling the sober black clothing worn by the figures in Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Cloth Guild and making for a similar tenebristic reversal.

The grand figures and “heroic” size of Desiderio’s paintings challenge the authority of Pollock’s allover paintings, just as the subtle materiality of the figures’ flesh challenges the grosser materiality of Pollock’s painterliness (however much the painterly details composing their flesh may uncannily function abstractly as well as descriptively). Pollock is obsolete, Desiderio implies; he no longer speaks to us, partly because he has been art historically reified, partly because he never had much of human interest to say. (Greenberg, his great defender, claimed as much.) Desiderio suggests that pure painting and abstraction—avant-garde art in general—have had their day, and that it is time to reabsorb them in representation and return to tradition, especially to allegory. Allegorical representation—the use of contemporary motifs to express what Wilson calls the archetypes “universally endowed by human evolution” and indicative of “overall structured and powerful human nature”—is tradition’s most profoundly human as well as aesthetically exciting “device.” For Desiderio, traditional art is a resource, not an enemy to defeat.

Flat painting destroyed traditional perspective, which returns with a manneristic vengeance in Desiderio’s paintings. Juxtaposition has come to be regarded as a trademark of postmodernism, and Desiderio often juxtaposes seemingly incommensurate “emblems,” as he calls his imagery, but they become obliquely commensurate by way of their all-too-human content. In 1912, in Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky wrote that “the ‘purely artistic’ and ‘objective’” were once “always present in art . . . [in] an ever-varying balancing act, which apparently sought to attain the ultimate Ideal by means of absolute equilibrium. . . . [Modern] art has apparently put an end to the welcome complementation of the abstract by means of the objective and vice versa.” It seems clear that Desiderio is struggling to overcome this “splitting up” of art in modernity by restoring the complementation—integration, I would say—which existed in traditional art. He has succeeded, I think, all the more so because he combines emblematic modern imagery and abstract methods with the skillful execution repudiated by many modern artists, thereby making a new humanistic art. That is today’s “avant-garde” frontier and challenge.

Donald Kuspit