Oscar Wilde was suspicious of men in suits. He once famously remarked that “with an evening coat and a white tie, even a stock broker can gain a reputation for being civilized.” Then as now, when you learn more about what many men in suits do, you might think twice about bestowing complimentary adjectives.
In his new solo show at the Y gallery, Troels Carlsen takes these suits to the cleaners and robs men in chic uniforms of the glamour they often don’t morally deserve. He’s neither the first nor the last artist to critique men in power, but what makes Carlsen’s art special is a wry — and clear — visual wit.
His Not to Change will Cost More series on view features men in suits with cubist geometric distortions over their faces. It alludes to idiomatic expressions like ‘turning a blind eye,’ ‘seeing from a skewed point of view,’ or ‘possessing a twisted mind.’
Looking closely at the works, one realizes that these are pages from an old book that have been “retouched.” At a flea market in Valencia, the artist happened upon a book of engravings of what he surmised were Spanish military men. But they looked too gallant. So, he dipped his brush into some acrylic paint and set about to make these portraits more reflective of the twisted deeds men like them undertake.
There isn’t specific information about the who’s-who, or the depicted individual’s specific culpability for particular historical events. This work is more about tarnishing an otherwise shining image and dismantling the positive associations of the suited man’s visual archetype.
Visually succinct, the painterly interventions certainly could have been more extensive on these old engravings. But Troels Carlsen felt less was more. At the opening, he remarked to Hyperallergic that “I like showing 3/4 of an idea instead of blowing it up. Not showing it all gets you to wonder more. It’s like Hollywood if you show everything.” By not going overboard, his works avoid looking gimmicky, tacky, or overwrought.
The worn out pages and jaundiced colors make this work look dated. But frankly the entire symbolism of the suited patriarchy is out-of-date. Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel have been the butt end of jokes for their power suits. But this humor’s potency reveals a sad point — today’s uniform for power is unabashedly masculine, white, and a vestige of a bygone era.
There’s also the nuance that people who allow for monstrous deeds don’t look that monstrous in real life. Most of them wear suits. Why do we crave villains that look so overtly diabolical in fiction and movies? Perhaps because it’s reassuring for once to be able to spot the bad guy. Hannah Arendt analyzed how this expectation of the evil look is thwarted by perpetrators’ banality in her famous 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But 60 years later, the New York audience for the recent Arendt biopic film was gray, and its run was limited.
It may not be a novel conundrum if both Oscar Wilde and Hannah Arendt wrote about it. But art doesn’t always have to discover new problems. Finding the artistic vocabulary to look at some of the most vexing elements of the human condition isn’t a shabby aim. And doing so with a succinct and transparent style is even better: Troels Carlsen reminds us that today’s emperors, like yesterday’s, are wearing
Troels Carlsen is on view at Y Gallery (185 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 9.