Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida centers on his mother, whose death prompted him to consider the aesthetic roots of memory through a photograph. How, he wondered, could his beloved mother be so present, yet so painfully distant? Barthes refused to reproduce the image, which he called the “Winter Garden Photograph,” in his book, for the simple fact that it would have no emotional meaning for his readers. The power of the photograph as a souvenir of life was, for Barthes, found in the punctum — that elusive and ephemeral, but nevertheless passionately material, detail that allows reality to burst through the haze of memory.
David Mramor, whose solo show Venus is now on view at Louis B. James gallery, has more in common with Barthes than the loss of a parent. Mramor’s glamorous pathos is a precise and nuanced excavation of the layers inherent in the steady march of time — a journey, perhaps, toward a painterly manifestation of the punctum. Known for his skillful intermingling of painting and photographic imagery, Mramor has in the past created stunning portraits that, without an ounce of heavy-handedness, evoke the sexy, campy sensorium of Americana, from Liz Taylor to Patsy Cline and Karen Carpenter. For this exhibition, Mramor uses two photographs of his late mother, one of her asleep on a delightfully floral bed and another of her face in three-quarter profile. Calling her “Venus,” Mramor places his mother within the history of tragic stardom that he has charted in his previous work, a tribute that imbues his canvases with a productively overwhelming combination of humor, longing, and sorrow.
Each of Mramor’s memorials is an inkjet print of a vintage photograph on canvas, which he manipulates with gaudy swaths of fluorescent paint. “Venus in Bed #1” (2014) combines blurriness with precision in the vein of Gerhard Richter, creating a rendezvous of tactility and distance. Mramor interrupts this hazy world with a bisecting mound of paint that cuts the figure in half, while another yellow smear hovers over her like a halo, as if we are lost in some smoky disco. We are far from the “reality” of the image, yet the paint’s physical presence is reminiscent not of an obfuscating shield, but rather a layer of skin — an extension, in a way, of the slumbering woman within the frame. We are there with her, connected by paint and an exuberantly queer lineage of female celebrity, even as the patina of history necessarily separates us from a stable kinship.
What results is a deft shuttling between discourses of history, sexuality, and multimedia practice, not unlike Jutta Koether’s “Hot Rod (after Pouissin)” (2009), which combines a sophisticated homage to the past with a vintage light from The Saint, a legendary gay nightclub. Mramor takes this process a step farther in “Venus in Bed (Carpet)” (2014), in which the image of his mother is printed on silk and then allowed to float over two layers of carpet. Each time the door of the gallery opens, Venus ripples gently in the wind.
This show is a delight not only because of the formal rigor Mramor exhibits, but also because of his generosity, his willingness to show us his own “Winter Garden Photograph,” a thought Barthes could or would not entertain. Mramor even includes in a subtle self-portrait a reminder of the beauty of obsolescence endured by all bodies — by the artist himself, by Venus, and by every human being, in time.
David Mramor: Venus continues at Louis B. James (143b Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 7.