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In the foreground of the painting, “Dwarf, Goat, Woman, Man and Head” (2014), a young woman in a striped red and blue bikini is standing in a forest, where it has recently snowed, multitasking. She cradles a decapitated head in the crook of her left arm, while, with her right hand, she is about to push down on the head of a naked dwarf with an erection standing beside her. The young goat standing between her legs is looking at you. You notice that the woman’s toes are pointed inward, making her seem awkward and vulnerable. A man with a stunned, forlorn look is standing behind her. The snow on the ground is blue, a sign that it is evening.
On the evidence of this work alone, Angela Dufresne, whose exhibition of eight paintings, Let’s Stay Together, is currently at Monya Rowe (September 7 – November 2, 2014), keeps getting better and better. For one thing, the figures feel as if they inhabit the space rather than being placed against a backdrop. Second, the space seems more distinct and masterfully done. In her earlier work, the thinly applied figure and ground – which was a combination of finger painting and faux Abstract-Expressionist brushwork, juicy, looping bands and flurries – often felt collaged, with two or more sources jammed together. In titles such as “”Cover of Van Gogh’s Cover of Millet’s Sleeping Hayers with Amber Flemingshon as Jane Russel from The Promo Pic for The Outlaw” (2011), with its range of allusions from painting to film, the viewer got the feeling that the work was often a hip roping together of cultural tropes, an accumulation of postmodern moves (or gestures). While I was sympathetic to Dufresne’s laudable ambition to push painting into a fresh territory, I also felt that this way could devolve into something programmatic, that it could only take the artist so far before she would begin repeating or parodying herself.
The allusions to other artists and movies, and Dufresne’s mixing of the two, seemed to undermine the possibility for an open-ended narrative. And yet, as this exhibition proves, she has a remarkable narrative gift, which is different from being anecdotal, telling a story, or citing disparate cultural sources, all of which she has already done.
Dufresne’s narratives are direct and opaque, funny and sinister, seemingly ordinary and downright weird, creepy and mysterious. But their real strength is that you cannot extract a story from them – that you can’t reduce what you see into some tale that you can take with you. The paintings in Let’s Stay Together neither illustrate a methodology nor are they a secret code that you have to decipher. The artist has shed her tendency to make work that feels claustrophobic, and at the same time she has introduced an unsettling feeling that gets under your skin.
“Dwarf, Goat, Woman, Man and Head” is both contemporary and mythical. You are apt to feel as if you have encountered a world where the real and the imagined exists simultaneously and you are not sure how much further you’d want to venture into it. The amazing thing about the exhibition is that Dufresne takes you there more than once with breathtaking assurance. In “Mother, Son and Foal” (2014), a horny young man with an erection in Speedo swim trunks is hugging a foal, which is sitting upright on a branch extending from a fallen tree. Staring intently at the foal, who seems to be looking in another direction, the man’s tongue sticks out, as if he’s about to French kiss the foal, whose front legs are resting on the man’s left arm. A bare-breasted woman, her teeth bared, stands on the other side of the fallen tree. The snow on the ground is highlighted in turquoise and violet.
Even when Dufresne makes an allusion in her title, as she does in “Mommy Dearest” (2014), it is impossible to say what exactly is going on. Dressed as if for a costume party, a woman stands in a skiff, guiding it ashore. A young boy and girl children wearing what appear to be horns or feathers are also in the boat. The boy is holding what appears to be a cross between a rat and a monkey. This might have nothing to do with Joan Crawford, but who cares. The painting exceeds its title and doesn’t look back.
In “A Real Allegory Of My Artistic And Moral Life” (2014), which is the biggest painting in the exhibition, Dufresne alludes to Gustave Courbet, which she has done before, and his masterpiece “The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life” (1855). While working on this painting, Courbet said: ““The world comes to be painted at my studio.” In the Dufresne’s painting, there is a computer and a television – both of which are on – along with the artist working on a painting of a nude figure (reversing the set up in Courbet). And while it is useful to be familiar with the source, it doesn’t depend on your knowing it for the painting to work. We are not talking about Anselm Kiefer here. Moreover, Dufresne didn’t try to establish to a one-to-one correspondence between her motifs and her references. Rather than being a template or platform, Courbet’s painting became a place for her imagination to run loose. Except for a blond woman wearing lipstick and a low-cut black dress, nearly everyone in the painting is naked. A number of them have horns, but you don’t know if they are growths or additions. There is an unidentifiable animal in the center foreground who seems to be responding a horned creature perched on a stool, playing what appears to be a guitar. Is the animal Dufresne’s vision of Courbet?
The pandemonium seems natural to the situation Dufresne depicts. The world – in the form of creatures (imagined and real), electronic receivers (computer and television), friends, helpers, and a patron (or dealer) – has entered the artist’s studio, a place of constant activity. The arrangement of the figures within the room, and the clusters they form, are more complex than in her earlier work. One sees multiple narratives going on, all connected in one way or another to the artist, who is seated to the right of the center. Not all of them are transparent, real or allegorical. There is something whimsical and oddball, bewildering and clear, rough and tender about the painting. With this exhibition, Dufresne has both upped the ante and elevated her work to another level. I think it is time that she and her work start to be seen in the limelight, where they have secured a place.
Let’s Stay Together continues at Monya Rowe (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 2.