New York

Tal R, Telephone & Mirror, 2014, oil on canvas, 38 1/4 × 30 3/4".

Tal R, Telephone & Mirror, 2014, oil on canvas, 38 1/4 × 30 3/4".

Tal R

Cheim & Read

Tal R, Telephone & Mirror, 2014, oil on canvas, 38 1/4 × 30 3/4".

“I want to make concrete rooms where the experience is absolutely abstract,” says Tal R. I wonder whether the Israeli-born Danish artist realizes that his aspiration is the reverse of that which was held by the American poet Marianne Moore, who famously desired to create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Not a fiction, then, “with a place for the genuine” in it, but a genuine place capable of housing the notional and ideal. Still, Tal R also seems to be, in his own way, one of those whom Moore called “literalists of the imagination.”

The “absolutely abstract” inhabiting the space of the fifteen paintings and twenty-seven drawings that were shown in Tal R’s recent exhibition “Altstadt Girl” is the female nude. (The exhibition also included, for your viewing comfort, a sculpture in the form of a double-sided pink couch, No. 9 T Bone, 2014.) The nude is necessarily abstract insofar as—being a motif that has been central to the history of Western painting since the Renaissance (Titian, Goya) and to an even greater extent since the inception of modernism (Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp)—it represents not just an empirical individual but “the nude” as such. Tal R is massively invested in this tradition in ways that are becoming more evident (and more enriching to his art) as time goes on. But his recent work has taken on voyeuristic overtones that, though obviously far from alien to the tradition, also complicate the project of approaching the female nude as an abstraction. As we learn from the gallery press release, the immediate source for the imagery here is not the artist’s memory or imagination, nor is it found imagery, whether high or low in origin. He has been working from life, asking both “strangers and casual acquaintances . . . to pose for him” so that “his paintings rest on the anxiety of an uncertain exchange.”

The stylization and distortion of form and anti-naturalistic color in these paintings may veil their relation to that moment of encounter—the unapprised viewer might not detect the disquiet of any “uncertain exchange” beyond that which takes place between the painter and his blank canvas—but the disquiet manifest everywhere in the show was palpable. And to my mind, the more disquiet the better. Tal R’s occasional resort to cartoonishness, for example in ET, 2014, or even to an awkwardness that simply seems too intentional, as in Jacobe Smoking, 2013, starts to seem evasive in comparison to the intense subjectivity of the best paintings here, which allows for no lightening of the mood: I am thinking in particular of works such as Sunday Nine and Telephone & Mirror, both 2014. Curiously, such paintings make it impossible to attribute the feelings they evoke to either the artist or his subject alone; the brooding self-scrutiny of the latter canvas might well be that of the painter facing his work rather than that of the woman depicted gazing or perhaps merely glancing at her reflection. In any case, it’s the strange shapes formed by, for instance, the way the woman’s body is half shadow, half light (but why is the illuminated portion of her figure in the darkest part of the room?) and the rawness of paint application, not its subject matter, that are the painting’s main bearers of emotion.

Viewers seeking relief from the ubiquity of the male gaze—or its less discussed complement, the overheated straight male imagination—might not have been pleased by “Altstadt Girl.” But the least one can say is that Tal R is not raising such concerns inadvisedly: The subject of these paintings is the discomfort between men and women—or rather, that discomfort is the genuine place in which the paintings are set.

Barry Schwabsky