New York

Lucy Stein

BROADWAY 1602 | Uptown

Mounted in the office of Broadway 1602 during Lucy Stein’s show was a small drawing made in ink on the kind of informational flyer found in college infirmaries—this one detailing the bodily dangers of bulimia. The drawing depicts a liberated Gibson Girl, with a hand, presumably of a man, reaching between her legs and approximately aligning with a medical illustration, printed on the flyer, of the digestive tract. Penned in fluid cursive at the top is a statement: STAND UP AND BE YOUR OWN CLICHÉ.

For the past several years, market critique has run through certain veins of painting. In such works, signs and gestures are meant to carry out tactics of deflection or flight or to question the work’s status as commodity. In contrast, and in what Broadway 1602’s Anke Kempkes describes in this show’s catalogue as a “(post) feminist stance,” Stein has an “expressive, self-absorbed, figurative painting style, obsessed with the female figure.” The works here fell into three loose sections: viscous oil paintings of deified water-bound bodies (namely, those of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s model for The Birth of Venus); cartoon storyboards of doll-faced women attempting ablutions in a state of postopiate malaise; and, in a central vitrine, a horizontal “commons” in which all characters mixed, medicated, and overlapped in a run of dirty, 
collaged notebook sketches. The painted
scenarios are summed up by their titles—
for example, Heavy Petting (Simonetta and
 Phelps in the Deep End) and Valium and
 Advocaat for Breakfast (all works 2008).
 Rather than just illustrate instances of con
trol lost, however, Stein actually enables
 them, generating chaos in the paint-handling itself so that her subjects are unable
to maintain their material forms. With perhaps a nod to Mira Schor, she often paints 
“wet on wet,” producing Bacon-style smears
in which figure becomes ground and bodies
merge at the level of the medium.

To enter a room hung with Stein’s deliciously chemical, Soutine-like oil paintings
of debaucherous heroes and heroines was
undeniably pleasurable. But beyond the
formal limits of the work’s surface and this momentary sensorial experience, the feeling of abandon and wayward indulgence felt contrived. This is not the mid-’90s, and few viewers would find anything in Stein’s Tracey Emin–style, tell-all narratives of glamour and self-loathing that could challenge (rather than just mimic) the somehow more sincere checkout-line snapshots of female celebrity train wrecks like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. With this in mind, I’m inclined to return to Stein’s directive (Be your own cliché) and read her images as dumb one-liners—as in a Richard Prince, in which the violated woman or bloody nurse is just a stolen joke. Or perhaps the gesture is more in line with Baselitz, and the enjoyably terrible paintings point to a fun, if intoxicated, life outside the studio, one infamous enough to lend the work cultural and market value. But to follow these theoretical threads would be to fabricate meaning for Stein’s work, which tends to operate like a Facebook profile made to reinforce or legitimize a persona. In a recent interview, Stein speaks of her impulse to portray doll-faced figures and bulimics: “I have the face for it, I am constantly told I look like a doll. I like faded glamour. . . . [I]t’s just the way it is, just as my paintings are the way they are.” While Broadway 1602’s openness to a show such as Stein’s is refreshing, I’m not convinced the work gives us any semblance of what postfeminism really is today.

Caroline Busta