New York

Austė, Nine Powers of Nine Flowers, 1981, acrylic on paper, 29 1/2 × 41 1/2".

Austė, Nine Powers of Nine Flowers, 1981, acrylic on paper, 29 1/2 × 41 1/2".

Austė

Austė, Nine Powers of Nine Flowers, 1981, acrylic on paper, 29 1/2 × 41 1/2".

“So bad it’s good.” In his 1987 review of a show by Austė in these pages, critic Carlo McCormick cited this patronizing qualifier as one possible read on the artist’s darkly campy work. It is perhaps no surprise that her unabashedly treacly confections baffled many 1980s viewers, even as Austė herself secured her place in New York’s downtown nightlife scene. The artist’s most prolific decade was coterminous with the vying neo-geo and neo-expressionist movements, neither of which had much truck with the scrawled curlicues and unapologetic girliness of her acrylics and works on paper.

For Austė’s second solo show in the past decade, she presented twenty-five works made between 1979, the year she moved to New York from Chicago, and 1992, the year she left for Connecticut. These demonstrated an unwavering sensibility informed both by punk and No Wave subcultures and by the rich graphic tradition of the artist’s Lithuanian heritage, from which she presumably took the petallike and curled embellishments that fill the negative space of her compositions. The paintings predominantly feature fairylike figures with red lips and large eyes framed by thick lashes, most often positioned offset and in profile, surrounded by cookie-cutter flowers and graphic motifs (multicolored stars, spots, and flowers). With few exceptions, her figures are stylized to the point of cliché.

Closer examination of the selection on view revealed a sophisticated and facile handling of paint. Nine Powers of Nine Flowers, 1981, for example, displays highly inventive, expressionist combinations of washes, drybrush, and delicate line work anchoring its composition. A horizon line divides the picture plane into a flat, sickly yellow expanse, which pools around a wraithlike figure and two trees, and a more thinly applied yellow sky. Though expert brushwork reveals skill and calculation, that virtuosity registers as coy, hiding within a scene whose immediate impression was one of kitsch. Ornament Thy Self with Modesty, 1984–85, is more overt in its agenda to register as “sweet as poisoned candy,” as the artist has described her work. The painting, among the largest of the grouping, features a doe-eyed siren whose profile and breasts, marred by veiny squiggles, are framed by a sheath of black hair. The work’s occult references—the black cat that faces her, the spiny-crowned sorceress extending a wand-like limb in the background—ultimately fail to spook. But its sheer offness, its florid bad taste and unabashed disinterest in the conventions of serious painting, remains successfully unnerving. My gut reaction was to dismiss the work and then immediately engage in soul-searching to trace the ingrained predilections that colored this response.

Austė’s aesthetic draws comparisons to that of Florine Stettheimer, a modernist painter who entrenched herself in the avant-garde salon equivalent of the former artist’s downtown circle, and whose work evidences a similar disregard for the conventions and artistic mores of her time—an artist who could easily be categorized as outsider, yet was anything but. Both painters favor allover, often flower-strewn compositions. As artist Nick Mauss described Stettheimer’s work, “The flowers take on something monumental, or even sort of monstrous.” Austė’s blooms, by comparison, are decoys—sentimental lures there to distract from her works’ insidious currents.

Cat Kron