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The Dispassionate Body: Philip Pearlstein, Paintings and Drawings of Figures in Still Life
through October 15, 2006
(above: photograph of Philip Pearlstein by Brian Rigney Hubbard, Copyright © 2005)
Created between 1964 and 2004, the paintings, drawings and associated objects in this exhibition delineate Philip Pearlstein's unique contribution to contemporary art -- the production of representational paintings by direct observation of the model and staged set-up, informed by an astute study of non-objective abstract art, Dada and surrealism, and graphic design.
Pearlstein was among the first post-abstract artists to consistently separate representation from imposed narrative. On first glance, the objects, bodies and settings in his paintings seem straightforward and realistic. Instincts lead us to assume that content is located in their subjects, and accordingly, we start looking for clues with which to decode the story. But we may be disconcerted to find that the figures refuse to meet our gaze, and that the bodies, objects and the relationships between them yield little or nothing. Many have tried to suggest that the artist chooses objects and poses models with a sociological narrative in mind. He (and his models) deny this, stating that poses and props are just as often selected by the models themselves. We can have fun, or be frustrated, trying to assign narrative to these works, but the choice is clearly ours, not Pearlstein's. In describing his models and props in their shallow spaces exactly as he sees them, he has done his part. As artist and former Pearlstein model Desirée Alvarez states, "This very denial of a narrative becomes the subject and the painting leaves the genre of realism to enter abstraction."
Where realist paintings created from photographs often result in a kind of visual shorthand, the kind of effects Pearlstein disallows, his paintings are of the long-hand variety, made by carefully observing and recording exactly what the eye, not the camera, sees. This too results in distortions, but of a different kind, often having to do with the effects of extreme foreshortening and the way figures are cut off at the edges. Along with fidelity to our binocular vision, the hallmarks of Pearlstein's art are its coolness, its detachment, and its compositional complexity. These are effects arrived at by painting objects, surfaces and spaces the way the eye actually sees it, including optical distortions and perspectival irregularities. Like non-objective abstract paintings, his are self-referential, and very much about the experience of seeing and enjoying visual forces at play. The what you see is what you get dictum of abstraction applies equally to Pearlstein's work.
In an interview with Robert Storr, Pearlstein once quipped, "I often have the feeling that maybe I should be exhibiting the set-up." In this exhibition, we have installed over a dozen objects from the paintings, including the entire set-up for Fox, Fish, Models and Wooden Lady. An inveterate collector, the objects Pearlstein enjoys and uses as props in his paintings fill his studio and several other rooms nearby. They imply animation and movement, but are stilled. Many are artworks themselves, of the folk, tribal, cartoon, or advertising design variety. They all sport distinctive surfaces -- weathered, painted, patterned, patinaed. They are well made as objects of their kind, causing one to wonder if the artist is reminding us of the high levels craft, discipline and/or obsessiveness required by his own manner of seeing and painting.
Along with its title, "To Look Like Seeing," two statements Jim Long made in an essay about the landscape paintings of Rackstraw Downs, equally apply to Pearlstein's still life with figure scenes. One, that they are "lively in the way we actually see," the other, that "a painting must be convincing without reference to the history of its origins, the raison d'etre of its form." Over the past forty years, volumes have been written about Philip Pearlstein, and he has written his own share of essays. Far from suggesting that we should ignore the rich discourse his work has inspired, we might also pay attention to Pearlstein's own offhand comment, "I get my highs by using my eyes." Look hard, and just enjoy it.
1 Not Made in Heaven, a film on the life and work of Philip Pearlstein is currently being produced by Jen Dietrich and Sarah Bauer of Underbelly Films and Althea Wasow, an independent producer. The film treats much of Pearlstein's development and early career. It was selected for screening at the marketplace of Independent Features Project in New York, 2006.
2 Alvarez, Desirée. "The Model as Painter and Painted." Denver Quarterly. Denver: University of Denver, 2001. Reprinted herein.
3 Long, James. "To Look Like Seeing." Rackstraw Downs, New York: Betty Cuningham Gallery, 2004.
Acknowledgements by Tweed Museum of Art
Our heartfelt thanks go to Philip Pearlstein and to the many people and institutions who worked with the Tweed to make this exhibit possible. Along with Betty Cuningham Gallery, we thank the following for lending artworks to the exhibition: The Butler Institute of American Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Flint Institute of Arts, the Ringling Museum of Art, and Robert Storr and Rosamund Morley. We thank Desirée Alvarez, who allowed us to reprint her insightful essay, and Edward Lucie-Smith, who shared his insights on Pearlstein and contemporary realism.
We appreciate the support of UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin, and School of Fine Arts Dean Jack Bowman in the creation of this project. Financial support has come from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Tweed Patrons, and the Art & Design Lecture Series.
This exhibition has been produced in concert with the production of the first full-length documentary film on Philip Pearlstein, by UMD Department of Art & Design faculty members Jen Dietrich and Sarah Bauer. We thank them for their assistance and cooperation.
(above: exhibition installations photographs, Lisa Ryczkowski, courtesy Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth)
The Model as Painter and Painted
by Desirée Alvarez
(First published in Denver Quarterly, Denver: University of Denver, 2001)
For the past seven years I have been a woman in Philip Pearlstein's paintings. It began as a part-time job, ideal for a painter with a bit of commercial modeling experience but who was disenchanted with its portrayal of women. I remember my first day meeting Pearlstein, an artist I have admired since my early teens, wondering what to wear to an interview for a nude modeling position with America's legendary realist figurative painter. I never dreamed that I would still be here years later, on the other side of a painting, sitting naked under hot lights; arms and legs numb, wrapped around antique toys. But I have stayed through graduate school, through many evolutions in my own way of working while Pearlstein has devotedly pursued his commitment to the figure. Neither of us can see me aging, but the paintings see and gradually record it. He has painted me into my early thirties, and I sit, stand and lie spellbound, watching these enigmatic paintings develop; not bored, not sleeping as the critics like to think, but meditating on my own current and future paintings.
I am annoyed by the historic image of the model as either passive object or brazen seductress. Neither of these roles matches my job description. I choose my own poses and find the meditative time empowering. Further, I consider the assumption of critics that models look bored to be a personal affront and hope the following ruminations will dispel such a notion. It seems like a good time for the model to talk back. First, about being the object of a specific male gaze and second, about that specific gaze, because after seven years of literally looking over this artist's shoulder, I discover I am a somewhat privileged authority on his work.
For the record, my poses are usually far too demanding and painful to be napping. Pearlstein often waits for the moment, usually halfway through a 25-minute pose, when veins begin to pop and muscles start to tense and swell. With the patience of a seasoned birdwatcher, he waits for the terrain of the body to become dramatically rugged. This is when the figure begins to interest him to record. Pearlstein's insistence on working from life is my job security. I remain in the pose throughout the painting's development, often reading while he paints the objects around me. "I need the visual confusion," he says, frustrated when he occasionally tries to work on the painting without me. He claims the entire set-up looks different with my body present, reflecting light and color.
It amazes me that even in the 90s many people are shocked or disturbed by Pearlstein's work. They see what I do as stripping and what he creates as pornography. Pearlstein can relate endless incidents of his work in museums vandalized, angry letters sent to the media regarding shows, exhibitions canceled under public protest, etc. A museum exhibition in Scottsdale, Arizona was called pornographic by the press and the curator was fired. Nevertheless, Pearlstein is following a tradition begun in ancient times, continued through the Renaissance to today, of displaying the nude figure as art. A recent study of people's responses to images of nudes, assembled from a variety of sources, including fine art, pornography and advertising, demonstrated that people were most disturbed by the study's nude images taken from contemporary fine art. (Eck, University of Virginia, 1996). This is not only because these images lack the historic accept-ability and romanticism of an odalisque, but also because they are characterized by a cutting-edge realism that is threatening in its unidealized depiction of the body. Pearlstein is frequently criticized for not flattering his models, and I am often asked why I am not displeased by his portrait of me. He believes he is recovering the nude from idolatry and pornography by respecting its reality, rendering it as he sees it. His approach is almost a denial of the model as icon, or at least a demystification; a refusal to exploit the body's power to inspire worship or sexually beguile.
Despite its increasing presence in the media, the nude still retains some of its ability to surprise and shock. Therefore, we are all the more startled to regard nudes staring into space, deep in thought, possibly bored or sleeping -- in short, minding their own business and making no effort to engage or seduce the viewer with direct eye contact, as in pornography or advertising. Nor are they presented as 'perfect' or voluptuous bodies. Frequently larger than life, with veins, muscles and fat folds apparent, they are simply bodies occupying space, just as the still-life objects -- toy cars, airplanes, African carvings, etc. -- exist as part of the composition. Ironically, in this sense I find it liberating to be objectified because I am not present in the painting to arouse, but rather to exist, and to provide a complex surface to interact visually with other complex surfaces. My head is frequently out of the painting and rarely am I central to the composition. This is a democratic, postmodern vision of the nude; casually presented, cynically cropped, unromanticized -- the individual observed within Pearlstein's carefully constructed still-life of artifacts and collectibles.
Pearlstein is an avid collector of Americana, antique toys, African art, Navaho weaving, pre-Columbian ceramics, Greco-Roman antiquities, etc. He has always been attracted to icons as subject matter, painting views that feature such classic American landmarks as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. His figure paintings often include a character from American pop culture such as Superman, Mickey Mouse or Popeye. Yet, Pearlstein's gaze extends far beyond current American fantasy. Over the years, I have modeled with Nefertiti, Punch, Godzilla, Javanese animal marionettes, rocking horses, a carousel ostrich, decoy ducks, Luna Park lions, a model ship, and a toy fire truck. Pearlstein favors animal imagery and creates a sort of menagerie in many paintings. In the very first painting I modeled for, I sat in an African birthing chair, surrounded by Godzilla, an Oceanic carving, a cement horse, a rooster weathervane, a Navaho rug and another model. Pearlstein's collection is eclectic and his paintings are the meditations of an acquisitive mind. Symbolically, they demonstrate the layering of cultures that forms our world. With my feet on a Navaho rug, my body in an African chair and Godzilla on my left, I am caught in an intricate multi-cultural web that spans centuries. I become the terrain on which these cultural signifiers visually rest; a formal stand-in for the individual in society on whom these icons act and influence. Each painting becomes an epistemology, presenting us with a unique view of the accumulation of knowledge, culture and craft. The figure is placed in a sort of collector's Garden of Eden -- though perhaps an Eden post Fall, for I am surrounded by the cultural residue of knowledge. I sit, absorbing all this wisdom and craft, wanting to don this glorious cloak of civilization, this coat of many colors. In each painting I am confronted by the striking consonance of texture, the repetition and contrast of cultures and epochs -- the stuff that makes us human and the stuff that humans make.
I am both moved and amused by the coexistence of pop culture and religious relics, the contrast in spirit of Pearlstein's curation of each painting: Godzilla above a prayer rug, Nefertiti and a firetruck, and often the ordinary electrical outlet on the wall of the painting's horizon. These groupings seem almost a meditation on the sacred and the profane. I find the combination of the electric outlet with the Navaho rug appropriate. While on the surface they may appear to represent the exotic and the mundane, respectively, actually they are both miraculous images: one representing prayer, the other power.
I always feel posing that the objects in the painting are the primary subjects and I, the figure, am the landscape on which they rest. Pearlstein once painted my hand so large, with such rippling veins, that it seemed a Sahara. Often I do not quite recognize myself in paintings due to the grandiose scale (often 1H - 2 times larger than life) and his abstraction of the body's surface. Pearlstein has transferred his interest in landscape painting -- always craggy mountains, intricate cityscapes, desert canyons and Anasazi ruins -- to the body with its veins, knuckles, muscles, breasts and flesh. This cinematic panning in to close-up views of intense detail, and the dramatic cropping of the figure, positions the body as an essentially American landscape: a Southwestern desert, full of light and shadow, rugged in its beauty.
With recent triptychs, Pearlstein pushes an eclectic collector's vision even further. As earlier paintings were inspired by his extensive use of 3-D cameras, the triptychs seem influenced by his recent love of video with its facile multiplicity of view-point. For several years, Philip has entertained me with travel videos: sharing his view of Pisanello, Mantegna and Michelangelo frescos, ruins in Turkey and gardens in Japan. This process of telling the same story through multiple and fluidly continuous views drives the new paintings. In Chevrons, we are shown three different women in the same African chair. Knowing Pearlstein to be a fan of Duchamp, I think of Nude Descending a Staircase, as both artists allude to the simultaneity of our perception of a repeated image with subtle variations. Static, seated women are suddenly given a sense of movement as our eyes move from one painting's composition to the next: legs, feet and arms are choreographed across three separate surfaces. The viewer becomes the video camera.
The triptychs are prismatic examinations of the theme of the acquisition of knowledge through culture, formally demonstra-ting the intricate geometric relationships between objects. Pearlstein is a classical audiophile and his favorite composer is Mahler. He constructs his paintings like symphonies: layering and repeating form and pattern rhythmically, finding geometry in apparent chaos. The paintings hint at allegory and psychological motif with such provocative tableaux as female models and horses in the Zeppelin and Horses triptych.
The narrative exists in Pearlstein's selection and combination of images which have become more baroque, or even operatic, in recent work. Yet while the paintings may suggest a story or puzzle to be solved, they remain finally opaque, leaving us to configure meaning. This very denial of a narrative becomes the subject and the painting leaves the genre of realism to enter abstraction.
I occasionally wrestle with the descriptions of Pearlstein's work as cold and unemotional. I am always startled by the difference between my experience as a model - sweaty and uncomfortable, with a view of everything in the painting except myself -- and Philip's perspective. I suppose the painter he most resembles in spirit is Mantegna. Both are painters of great intellect and precision. These paintings are driven by geometry, and the tension, mystery and ultimate power of their work emanates largely from what is withheld.
The equation of energetic, erratic mark-making, signifying the gesture of the artist's body in the act of painting, seems a 20thcentury notion, arising from such New York School painters as Pollock and Kline. Certainly old masters cannot be accused of dispassion, despite their meticulous rendering. However, they have a specific narrative that gives their work emotion, and this is what Pearlstein's work lacks. The tension in his work comes from the fact that we are not accustomed to perceiving the body as a territory for abstraction. We want a painting of the body to be visceral because our experience of our bodies is visceral. Therefore, we do not bring the language of abstraction - and especially not geometric abstraction -- to nude figure painting. Pearlstein's challenge is that we should.
About the author
Desirée Alvarez is a New York based artist who works with large-scale hand-printed fabric, watercolors, prints and other media. She modeled for Philip Pearlstein for a decade beginning in 1993, and has taught at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY, Brooklyn. This essay first appeared in The Denver Quarterly, University of Denver, Winter 2001, where it was awarded the Robert D. Richardson award for best essay in a volume year.
Unless otherwise noted, all works courtesy of the artist and Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York.
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