Ellen Gronemeyer, Gambling Caviar, 2012, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 45".

Ellen Gronemeyer, Gambling Caviar, 2012, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 45".

Ellen Gronemeyer

Ellen Gronemeyer, Gambling Caviar, 2012, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 45".

Is that a grin or a rictus? The kooky, bug-eyed faces that leer from the eighteen oil paintings in this exhibition raise the question more than once. Ellen Gronemeyer’s first solo exhibition in New York was titled with the German word Affentheater, or “ape theater,” the name for traveling shows popular in the second half of the nineteenth century in which trained monkeys were dressed in human clothes and made to perform acrobatics and imitate human behavior. Accordingly, the cartoonlike figures in her paintings imply discomfort, as if they had been painfully wrenched into their circumstances of vaudevillian hilarity.

A handful of works appear to directly invoke the bawdy burlesques of the show’s title. In comme ci comme ça, 2012, four caricatures of primates—tongues lolling, limbs flailing—arranged themselves in an impossible configuration, their twisting limbs and torsos constituted by outlines that dissolve into the background’s dense accumulation of white and yellow marks. Similarly, in Find ich spitze (That’s Great), 2012, a furious little man in a handstand balances on his index finger. He too is delineated via outline, a perfunctory nod to discrete form at best, since the mottled brushwork of fleshy pink, toothpaste green, and dark red is visible through his body. The exhibition also included a number of smaller, portraitlike works: a black sun with a mournful smile, a chuckling man in suspenders, a grimacing white head. Looking sharply to the left with a disturbed, frightened expression, the eyes of the ambiguously gendered visage in Milchbert, 2012, are circled with black, giving them a distinctive pop.

Not surprisingly, in light of Gronemeyer’s affinity for a grim palette, dense surfaces, and grotesque faces, Jean Dubuffet is frequently cited in comparison with her work, and it’s easy to imagine that she shares his fascination with the art of the mentally ill. In Gambling Caviar, 2012, a terrifying, churning mass of googly eyes peers from a purplish murk, forming a composition that looks as if it had been devised in an agoraphobic’s art-therapy session. The near allover patterning constituted by the sea of bulging eyes is also evident in Sie sind übergeschnappt (They Are Crazy), 2011, in which a jangly, dappled background supports an evenly spaced array of yellow birds.

In many of these works, Gronemeyer has slowly amassed layers of pigment to create a rough impasto, which draws the viewer’s attention to the tactile, material properties of paint. Yet this is also true of a work that departs from—almost inverts—that laborious technique. For How can you sleep, 2012, rather than building up the surface, letting it dry, and building it up some more, the artist evidently worked quickly, rapidly rendering two disgruntled faces in a cloud and surrounding it with doodles and flecks of paint. Most of the surface is left bare, and that empty, unprimed surface is paper—not canvas or board. So as the oil paint dried, it bled, leaving abject greasy stains around each mark—a disassembly of the medium that reveals its constituent parts.

It would be wrong, however, to understand this motif of separating oil paint on paper as an analytic focus on the thing itself. Rather, Gronemeyer’s process here comes off as wacky error, a painterly fail. It’s a dramatization of a slapstick mistake, one that evokes the foibles of her bawdy cartoons. The painter here casts herself as a trained ape dressed in human clothing—a touch of self-deprecation that gets at the anxieties we feel as we perform our lives.

Lloyd Wise