New York

Philip Pearlstein, Two Models with Peruvian Medicine Man, 2011, oil on canvas, 60 x 48".

Philip Pearlstein, Two Models with Peruvian Medicine Man, 2011, oil on canvas, 60 x 48".

Philip Pearlstein

Betty Cuningham Gallery

Philip Pearlstein, Two Models with Peruvian Medicine Man, 2011, oil on canvas, 60 x 48".

Philip Pearlstein regards the body as a “territory for abstraction”—so writes Desirée Alvarez, an artist and a longtime model for the artist’s painting. This is a counterintuitive approach to figuration, Alvarez explains, because we always experience our bodies as “visceral,” and are therefore drawn to representations of it that are also visceral. Pearlstein’s language of abstraction is thus a challenge. Indeed, the bodies he paints lack any organic quality. There’s no “lushness,” no sense of flourishing flesh. The skin looks thin and dried. And his nudes are often irksomely positioned—their legs are often crossed or bent. (The crooked arrangement of limbs is not entirely unprecedented, sharing a certain affinity with the strangely eccentric pose of the Venus in Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, ca. 1545.)

Such attributes were fully on view in the ten paintings and five watercolors in Pearlstein’s recent show. As in much of the artist’s oeuvre, no men appear in these works—the subjects are all female. Because these women are painted by a man, they are caught up in his “male gaze.” Pearlstein is not looking at women through Degas’s keyhole—he’s not a Peeping Tom—but he is looking at them with a similar bold coldness. I suggest desire is somewhat more repressed in Pearlstein’s paintings (as his generally “dry” handling implies), and that it returns in the form of the symbolic objects that accompany his models. Indeed, with their colorful carpets, decorative objects, and erotically charged ornaments, Pearlstein’s paintings are overloaded with symbols. Is the Michelin Man in Two Models with Kiddie Car Airplane, Chariot, Whirlygig and Michelin Man, 2011, Pearlstein? Is he the Mickey Mouse on the blanket in Model on Air Mattress with Mickey Mouse Blanket, 2012? The rocker—a favorite object—in Model with Star Patterned Quilt on Rocker, 2011, seems delirious with desire. Model on Wooden Lounge with Swan, 2013, featuring a woman with her legs suggestively resting on a wooden bird, may allude to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. The models are passive and inert; the objects are active and lively. Many are toys, suggesting what Freud called male infantile curiosity about the female body, and, with that, castration anxiety. Are the objects prosthetic male genitalia?

The Mannerism of Pearlstein’s paintings is self-evident in the steep perspective with which he constructs his compressed space; the elongated look of his figures, with their oddly rubbery flesh; and the pervasive air of theatrical artificiality and conscientious absurdity. The top edge of his paintings sometimes interrupts the heads of his figures, adding to this sense of bizarreness. He loves primary colors, often deploying royal blues and rosy reds. His pictures are formally intricate: His shapes, whether of objects (treated like figures) or figures (treated like objects), seem to be twisted together in a Gordian knot. They symbolize Pearlstein’s passion—urgent yet conflicted.

Donald Kuspit