A portrait is an artist’s attempt to encapsulate and fix character, whether it’s been commissioned as an advertisement of power (all those pharaohs, kings, aristocrats and emperors) or something humble and intimate (think Rembrandt’s sobering self-depictions). But in the end, impetus counts less than insight. The Met’s marble bust of Caligula originally served as political propaganda, but what remains is cold, harsh truth.
Distinctions particular to portraiture came to mind when I was looking at Philip Burke’s portrait of Kurt Cobain, frontman for grunge rock band Nirvana and a suicide at the age of 27. It’s a jangled caricature made up of skewed lines, jabbing brush strokes and seemingly incompatible elisions of color. Cobain’s right eye glares at us; the left eye is ratcheted upward and obscured by stringy hair. Compare Mr. Burke’s Cobain to those by Elizabeth Peyton at the New Museum. Ms. Peyton paints a symbol of soppy adolescence. Mr. Burke, by contrast, paints the man who wrote a song titled Rape Me.
Mr. Burke is taken less with dreamy narcissism than with stark likeness. He’d better be: A commercial artist out of sync with the ephemeral nature of mass-produced periodicals is begging to have readers gloss over his illustrations on the way to the crossword puzzle.
Immediacy and impact are Mr. Burke’s stock in trade—the pictures grab and hold; they elaborate as well. Mr. Burke’s double portrait of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards is hilariously concise: Mr. Richards’ shambling integrity and rakish charm are rendered with dead-on acuity. We’re reminded of who the soul of the Rolling Stones really is.
Regular readers know Mr. Burke’s art well: His garish illustrations have been featured on innumerable covers. You’ll recognize not a few when visiting “Philip Burke: Face Nation,” an exhibition on view at Antiquorum gallery and mounted in association with The Observer. A formidable presence in the national media, Mr. Burke’s illustrations have appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Times, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair—the list goes on.
Caricature is inherently pitiless; even the kindest exaggerations intend to reveal, not flatter. Athletes, politicians, rock ’n’ rollers, film stars and the stray supermodel—Mr. Burke paints them as if they were molded from Play-Doh. Every feature—nose, chin, boobs and teeth—turns rubbery, knotted, lumpish or swollen; every attitude is brutally abbreviated. The palette is a queasy mix of cools, warms and oddly congruent clashes in tone. Oils—a famously difficult and time-consuming medium—are applied with speedy resolution. Mr. Burke’s paint-handling slashes and burns with supple precision. Tight deadlines do that to an artist.
You’ll find The Donald here; Princess Di, too. The president-elect beams as the American flag waves behind him. Ray Charles hugs himself, his cavernous laugh accented by explosive dark glasses. Bob Hope eyeballs us with well-honed unctuousness. John Lennon’s face warps and swells, an unnerving distortion that condenses his arrogance and intelligence all the same. Notwithstanding Mr. Burke’s prevailing acidity, these portraits are relatively benign and sometimes surprising. Mr. Trump comes across as fairly haimish. Who knew?
But, really, the level of pleasure afforded by a caricature increases in direct proportion to its cruelty. Politics brings out the nasty in Mr. Burke. Al Sharpton’s face is subjected to malevolent puckering. The sitting president is a pinheaded cowpoke. And then there’s Hillary Clinton as Queen Elizabeth—a fleshy sack of noblesse oblige rendered in sickly greens, pinks and purples. You’d have to go back to George Grosz to find something quite as poisonous. Our next secretary of state wouldn’t take that as a commendation. Mr. Burke should.
“Philip Burke: Face Nation” is at Antiquorum, 595 Madison Avenue, until Dec. 13.
Eric Fischl, Cindy Sherman, Sandro Chia and Terry Winters—you can’t throw a rock in Chelsea without hitting a 1980s art star. Mr. Winters fares the best, combining signature biomorphic shapes with schematic structures gleaned from (don’t ask) “knot theory.” The paintings sag under the artist’s scrabbled pretensions and a continuing over-reliance on Philip Guston and Cy Twombly, but there’s a difference: At long last, Mr. Winters understands color. Perfumey creams, pinks, grays and blues quaver, trickle and delicately claim their pictorial turf, endowing the pictures with chromatic amplitude.
“Terry Winters: Knotted Graphs” is at Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 West 22nd Street, until Jan. 24.
Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters) (2008), a video projection by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, transforms MoMA’s mezzanine into a watery Edenesque parable. A cinematic tumble of luridly colored flora, fauna, nudes and discarded soda cans offer testimony to nature’s beneficence and its ruin. As an environmentalist tract, Ms. Rist’s tone-poem installation is blessedly light of touch—its moralism is spectacular, not profound. A huge circular sofa, throw pillows and shag carpeting in the gallery provide a comfy spot to marvel at Ms. Rist’s endearing naïveté.
Pipilotti Rist: Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters) is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, until Feb. 2.
Maryam Amiryani’s still-life paintings are gems of pictorial economy. Small in scale and ineffably concentrated, they contain anonymous surfaces upon which are placed one or two crisply delineated objects—a toy zebra, a paper hat or poppies. The colors are few, rich and clean; the mood intimate bordering on otherworldly. A spare strain of symbolism infiltrates Ms. Amiryani’s art, but it’s her tenderly distressed surfaces that entrance.
“Maryam Amiryani” is at George Billis Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, until Dec. 20.