New York

Judith Eisler, Tilda 2, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

Judith Eisler, Tilda 2, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 × 48".

Judith Eisler

Judith Eisler paints from film stills. This fact is often the first thing you hear about the artist, as if the conceit, which she has productively mined for more than two decades now, is sufficient to explain the formal qualities and conceptual underpinnings of her work. Snapping pictures while pausing movies on her DVD (or, in another age, VHS) player, Eisler freezes moments meant to be fleeting—capturing headlights in the fog, for example, or exhaled cigarette smoke, a backward glance—and renders them in oil. Blurry and slightly distorted, the resulting paintings are explications of the slippage between film, photography, and painting, and of the layers of relay and delay that are embedded in the translation from screen to canvas. Often featuring dewy close-ups of such actresses as Gloria Swanson, Romy Schneider, and Delphine Seyrig, Eisler’s savvy works are also tinged with an unmistakable sexiness.

And yet they can also feel a bit overdetermined. Perhaps to acknowledge that fact, Eisler made a daring choice of source material for her first New York solo exhibition in a decade: iconoclast Derek Jarman’s 1986 film Caravaggio, on the Baroque master. Painting sensuous, chiaroscuro details from a sensuous, chiaroscuro movie about sensuous, chiaroscuro paintings could have been a bad idea. Remarkably and unexpectedly, the results were stunning.

Eisler astounded with close-ups of Carravaggio’s palette and canvas—as imagined via Jarman—offering a smooth, sweet mess of colors and light. Her images induce the same sense of claustrophobia and disorientation that Caravaggio’s paintings do, though she doesn’t attempt to mimic those. In Paintbrush, 2017, clawlike bristles had just touched the canvas, and were poised to scrape some black across a swath of peach and yellow, which was hemmed in on all sides by dusky patches. The sense of anticipation was palpable. A strong visual echo was found in the next room with Foot, 2018, a tight shot of the titular body part with water droplets appearing like warts or pearls. Rakishly lit against a dark background, the appendage is radiant, if slightly grotesque—it enters the frame from the top right-hand corner and fills the three-foot-wide canvas in tones that range from tawny and carrot to claret. The tension in the upward curl of the big toe, and in two raised veins that run from the ankle to the sole, make clear that this foot is being hesitantly offered. (The image comes from an early scene in the film, when the young Caravaggio, ill and being cared for by priests, is noticed by the cardinal who will later take him in.)

We can sense sundry textures in Eisler’s paintings—the stickiness of paint, the roughness of skin—even as they are denied us by the artist’s smooth strokes and glossy surfaces. Perhaps because Eisler has painted faces with such intensity over the past several years, the still lifes in this exhibition stood out far more than the two portraits of Tilda Swinton (one, Magdalena, 2018, showed Swinton’s character posing for Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene, 1594–95; the other, Tilda 2, 2017, depicted her ready to remove a head scarf). The six-by-eight-foot Palette, 2017, offered a swarm of whites, washed-out yellows, and sickly salmons interspersed with patches of vermilion and onyx. In the picture, light bounces off two glass decanters and a stone mixing bowl. The scene is so fuzzy that one needs a moment to identify the brush dabbing and swiping the colors. Palette 2, 2017, offered a slightly different view of the same tableau, captured perhaps only seconds later: Here, Caravaggio’s hand is more clearly visible as his brush glides across the surface, and a few coins lie in the lower right-hand corner. In both paintings, the palette becomes a site of carnal appetites and mesmerizing substance.

Rachel Churner