Thomas Trosch Paintings: New and Old at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery in Chelsea is exactly what its title promises. A few of Trosch’s older canvases in the back gallery survey his signature subjects and lush painting style. In these large, ambitious works, he paints the salons and boudoirs of society women; femme du monde outfitted and staged in idyllic movie-musical settings. With male companions in tow, Cole Porter lyrics and private conversations swim overhead. One envisions Peggy Guggenheim accessorized in artist-designed jewelry traipsing around her The Art of This Century gallery, or Iris Apfel adorned in oversized glasses and a bejeweled muumuu, or perhaps Midge, the sensible fashion illustrator from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Time periods, from the 1920s to the ’70s, mix and mingle in a collision of froufrou interior decoration, costumes, and objets d’art.
The habits and habitat of the Swans of Fifth Ave is an interesting subject enough, but where the work really takes off is in how Trosch knits his figures into the warp and weft of his painting. The subjects and paint work in tandem, each revealing the other, undergirded by a host of Abstract Expressionist idioms. In the thrall of homage and nostalgia, Trosch conjures up the marks, tropes, and touch of many other painters. Joan Mitchells’s or Mark Rothko’s floating fields materialize as mirrors or thrones. A huddle of squares manifests as rugs lining floors or paintings mounting walls, and mingle with the inhabitants, as if Hans Hoffman is communing with James Ensor. In “Japanese Lesson #23,” thought bubbles and hanging lamps interrupt a large painting stationed in the background, fracturing it into a jagged Clyfford Still.
Trosch’s new work zeros in on the relationship between artist and model, patron and protégé, or kept boy and cougar. In varying scenarios, she may be painting him or he painting her, she receives an art lesson or discovers the young prodigy. She dons a party dress while he is often bare chested, wears a shaggy beard, and sports cutoff shorts and a graphic tee like a surfer dude. Sometimes they both are frocked like hippies in Godspell drag. The recent work is smaller, rawer, without words, and relishes in a primordial awe of paint. Most canvases are heavily impastoed and figures are rendered in crude primary colors resembling any number of the COBRA Group. Often the canvas is exposed, paint marks floating on the surface with smudges straddling the edges. There is a louche, meandering way Trosch fills in spaces with a naive unfussiness, dragging and sweeping the paint into rainbow blends or using pencil or the end of his brush to scratch out a detail.
Trosch’s new paintings are like sheet cakes with heavy icing squeezed straight out of the tube. Sometimes diagrammed with mystical arrows, lozenges, doilies, stenciled numbers, and stars — the sort to be found in an Al Jensen painting or a Boucherouite rag rug of Morocco. Boucherouite carpets, woven with a hodgepodge of scrap materials, are a favorite of many modernist designers for their simple, asymmetric patterns and eccentricity. It’s as if Trosch has lifted such a mat onto the surface of his picture plane, embedding the chichi silhouettes of Western collectors into the fabric of an exotic, luxury item.
Trosch’s art in some ways recalls Florine Stettheimer’s, who is currently having a retrospective at the Jewish Museum. Her forays into poetry and performance (she was also celebrated for her set and costume design) mirror Trosch’s interest in movie musicals. Both artists ruminate on the creation and commerce of art with a manner of storytelling that is as shrewdly observant as it is personally revealing. Both are sophisticates and savants praising the twin paradises of arcadia and bohemia, a sentiment better sung out by Cole Porter, “It’s a swell planet if you take time to scan it and it all belongs to you.”
Thomas Trosch Paintings: New and Old continues at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery (536 West 24th Street, Chelsea) through May 26.