New York

Matt Saunders

Harris Lieberman

Had Warhol dropped the irony that made him who he was and embraced the romanticism that undeniably coursed through his work (and life), his art might have looked a lot like Matt Saunders’s. Like the King of Pop, Saunders makes serial, photo-derived images of celebrity icons and manipulates their surfaces with washes of paint. In his 2006 exhibition at Harris Lieberman, he showed works depicting the faces of male screen stars from generations past (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Buster Keaton), painted on Mylar and frosted with a lush sheen of oil paint and metallic silver ink. The effect is gorgeous and alienating. The arch, vintage faces are larger than life, and Saunders’s glossy haze is in keeping with the stars’ moody, removed, and elevated air. The portraits are like Ron Galella’s tabloid photos, bringing viewers so close and yet keeping them as distant from the subjects as ever.

The muses in Saunders’s latest work are European pretalkie actresses Asta Nielsen and Hertha Thiele. Nielsen, an androgonyous Danish woman with blazing, infinite eyes, was especially iconic in the 1910s and was known, like Madonna and Oprah, by only her first name: “Die Asta.” She now is hailed as “the first international movie star.” Saunders is an American living in Berlin, where depictions of Nielsen and Thiele resonate differently than they do here. To American eyes, they’re images more of bygone stylishness than of identifiable celebrities. Especially in the Nielsen series, which occupied the whole of the gallery’s main space, technique is as much a protagonist as the portraits themselves. For most of these, Saunders painted an image, based on an arresting stock photo of Nielsen, in oil and silver ink on a semitransparent Mylar sheet, and then contact-printed it onto photographic paper. Two were printed by transferring a small ink-on-Mylar to the paper using a photographic enlarger. The ten pieces picture the superstar enmeshed in various effects, like different versions of a Warhol silk screen. In some, entire sections of her face are eclipsed by wide brushstrokes.

Saunders’s strokes and silver mists effect a romantic sheen, a soft vapor whispering of genteel European glamour, a constructed vintage that announces its distance from the hard clarity of digital photography. Nielsen and Thiele don’t quite feel like the direct subjects of this body of work—the manipulation itself is just as forcefully emphasized, almost gaudily so. Saunders’s image-based work is paradoxically concrete, similar to contemporary abstract photographs by Eileen Quinlan or Walead Beshty. Technique and process become paramount, although Saunders maintains distinct imagery, whereas Quinlan and Beshty have definitively abstract styles. Saunders presumably chose Nielsen and Thiele as muses to root this body of work in the early twentieth century, as well as to continue his project dealing with film stars from bygone generations. While Warhol’s portraits were so right there, so superficial that they were crass, Saunders’s are the reverent work of a fan. His pictures, with their silver treatments, have a gauzy romance, belying a fetish for vintage. They look somewhat similar to Troy Brauntuch’s or Jack Goldstein’s works, but read as homages, not as critiques of the circulation of imagery. These film icons have faded from the public eye, but not tragically or embarrassingly. They may be dimmed to abstractions, but Saunders—ever the romantic—won’t let his stars fade.

Nick Stillman