Conduits for Reverie:
Puzzling, Risky Paintings
The horrors of 9/11 are not the explicit subject of Susanna Coffey’s paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, though scenes of a city under siege do serve as the backdrop for her continuing exploration of self-portraiture. The events of that day have been transformed in her art into something else-but what that something else might be is difficult to grasp.
Anyone familiar with her oeuvre knows that Ms. Coffey is all about resistance. She’s both an ideologue and a pure painter and neither of those things: She trades in absolutes only to deny them. This makes for frustrating art. It also makes for pictures that stick, like a burr, in the memory.
Learning that the paintings are based on newspaper photos of the war in Iraq doesn’t help: try locating a political stance and you’ll be thwarted. If Ms. Coffey, wearing a camouflage tank top and bathing cap, seems despondent in Conveyance (2003), she’s serene when surrounded by explosions and fire in Stream (2003). These paintings do run the risk of exploiting events whose importance will inevitably overshadow whatever’s on the canvas, yet the gravity of Ms. Coffey’s purpose-of her mood, really-is unmistakable. The war pictures (if we can call them that) are, oddly enough, conduits for reverie, simultaneously discomfiting, soothing and convoluted. Their stark, theatrical intensity makes the more typical self-portraits-passive-aggressive meditations on identity-look a trifle silly (though their pithiness as painting is inarguable). Ms. Coffey wouldn’t be the first person to open up to the world only as it threatens to descend into disarray. Perhaps that’s what accounts for the subtle shift from negation to some semblance of acceptance. Ms. Coffey remains a problematic figure-if only other artists would present us with puzzles so intricate and true.
Susanna Coffey: Recent Work is at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until Nov. 8.
Live From Duluth
I should hate the pictures of David Dupuis at the Derek Eller Gallery. A devotee of post-conceptualist pastiche, Mr. Dupuis uses landscape as an armature upon which to situate a motley array of cartoonish signs: lumpish stenciled letters, crusty dabs of oil, Surrealist hazes, crystallized geometry, horny tongues and drifting clouds. The surfaces are scuffed and ragtag, as if the canvases had spent the better part of their lives stacked in a garage somewhere in Duluth. Mr. Dupuis’ take on adolescence is predictable: He recognizes its passing, but can’t bring himself to let it go. When he tries to make a statement, as in Doubt Collecting (2003), an anti-religious farce, he capitulates to a self-conscious, smart-ass mockery.
So why bother with him? He has a rough-and-fumble talent, and just enough principle to make you want to give his pictures a break. Two of them, Candy Coated Mountain (2003) and Basin (2003), don’t need the charity. Both make coherent the artist’s awkward, introspective fantasies; they have a heft the rest of the work lacks. Credit the light: Strange, milky and barely detectable, it surrounds the images with a wan benevolence.
David Dupuis is at the Derek Eller Gallery, 526-30 West 25th Street, second floor, until Nov. 15.
The big problem with American Cutout , an exhibition at the New York Studio School, is that it isn’t big enough. David Cohen, the director of the gallery, has hit upon an ingenious (and, one would think, extendable) vehicle for examining postwar American art-not collage (though the show is inconceivable without it) but silhouette, the form defined by excision and contour. The show fudges its time frame by including a 19th-century weathervane depicting George Washington, and it doesn’t always hew to material fact. (Phillip Pearlstein’s canvas features a painted cutout.) Mr. Cohen isn’t a stickler for nationality, either: He bestows honorary American citizenship upon Henri Matisse. Then again, any exhibition devoted to the cutout that didn’t take into account Matisse’s monumental achievement would be in serious denial. Mr. Cohen is wise to include him (and perhaps less wise to include-and thereby give credence to-Willem de Kooning as sculptor, and also Robert Motherwell, whose contribution to the art of collage has been hugely overrated).
William King, Judith Rothschild, Conrad Marca-Relli, Irving Kriesberg, Alexander Calder, Alex Katz and Ellsworth Kelly, all significant talents, are seen to winning effect. Certainly you’ll never find Mr. Katz and Mr. Kelly as ingratiating as they are here. Mr. Katz’s bland arrogance is humanized when he works small, keeps it casual and leaves ambition at the door. Mr. Kelly’s postcard collages riff on kitsch, sex and history with a disarming, pseudo-Dadaist ease. In the best of them, a Suprematist wedge of red is affixed to a reproduction of Edgar Degas’ The Young Spartans , as if the 20th century were asking the 19th to step outside to settle their differences. The result is a draw, drolly and decisively put forth.
American Cutout is at the New York Studio School, 8 West Eighth Street, until Nov. 22.