New York

Chris Oh, Sky, 2021, acrylic on chalkware statue, 14 3⁄4 × 9 1⁄2 × 8".

Chris Oh, Sky, 2021, acrylic on chalkware statue, 14 3⁄4 × 9 1⁄2 × 8".

Chris Oh

There’s an infrathin line between appropriation and theft. The former occasions huge reserve prices, the latter lawsuits. The most successful modern practitioners of appropriation, such as Jeff Koons and Richard Prince—who delight in agitating the limits of good taste and copyright—typically achieve both outcomes, often at the same time. But Chris Oh, who scrupulously paints old-master imagery onto almost hysterically difficult-to-negotiate objects, is after something else.

Some of Oh’s previous subjects of intense focus have included the paintings of Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden; Oh mapped details from those early-Netherlandish works onto modern artifacts such as hubcaps and soccer balls, producing exquisite moments of cognitive dissonance. Here, though, the artist alighted on Hieronymus Bosch, most notably his delirious triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490–1500, reproducing the artist’s pasty nude figures on antiquarian volumes, leaded-glass windows, creepy little terrariums, silicone ears, and other curios. Filled with such treasures, the storefront exhibition space resembled a Victorian-era apothecary as much as a downtown gallery.

Oh has previously worked with trash, à la Kurt Schwitters. Yet for the presentation here, he sourced his treasures online, procuring a similar haul, presumably at greater expense. For instance, replicated across the clavicle of a chalkware Madonna bust (Sky, 2021), was a detail from Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1475. Elsewhere was a deeply weird sculpture of an ostrich egg emerging from a brass flower (Lotus, 2020–21) that served as the canvas for a close-up portrayal of two hands supporting a thurible, upon which a bantam hawk has perched. Oh’s choice of object uncannily echoed Bosch’s imagery, giving the Northern Renaissance artist’s work a tactile dimensionality. Bosch depicted glistening crystals and clamshells, and Oh finds real-world analogues to paint upon, heightening their strangeness. In Communion, 2021, vintage seed packets are stitched together and lavished with pictures of Boschian revelers, orgiastically gorging themselves on swollen blackberries and fleshy nectarines. The more memorable scenes here included a turnip slowly changing into a daisy chain, and people doing terrible things to golden wax beans. We also find figures metamorphosing into carrots, or see their limbs emerging from cayenne peppers and French breakfast radishes.

For the most part, Oh opted for Bosch’s lighter imagery, eschewing the more hellish stuff (no pigs in nuns’ habits or rectal impalements) and the biblical moralizing. Oh’s art is devotional in another way, tracing the contours of Bosch’s forms and reverse-engineering the Renaissance painter’s hand—a game of exacting manual reproduction. But Oh frequently manages to honor Bosch’s phantasmagorical spirit: Take the eerily arresting Pulp/Brood, 2021, a diorama built into the cranial cavity of a cracked-open, 3D-printed human skull. Nestled into a bed of faux moss inside the object is half an eggshell with a solitary figure painstakingly depicted on its inner well.

Oh’s technical facility is mesmerizing—painting on the craggy surface of an amethyst crystal seems like torture. In less dexterous hands, such an exercise might come off as soulless shtick. Yet Oh’s pictorialized objects captivate even as they sidestep the artist’s peril of finding a fresh painterly style by largely ignoring the temptation to do so—in rendering his images so faithfully he remains content swimming in the self-replenishing waters of the past. Peter Paul Rubens obsessed over Titian, repainting dozens of pictures, trying to absorb their secrets, and effectively succeeding. Obsession can be its own reward. But when married to concrete form, its dividends are multiplied.