Art

A Surreal View of Mid-20th C American Art

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery "Otherworldliness" installation shot

The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s mission is to promote important movements within American art while also increasing the visibility of under-recognized artists. Otherworldliness, the gallery’s current exhibition, executes the institution’s objective with cool aplomb.

Most of the works on view were completed midcentury, postwar. With the exception of George Tooker, the majority of artists on view were overlooked during their lifetime, living in the shadow of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism. The artists represented here worked in the tradition of surrealism and magic realism, which sought to convey unconscious yearnings. This exhibit’s varied subject matter includes portraiture, landscape and still life, as well as public nudity, space travel, alienation and murder. To be blunt, most of the paintings are bizarre and fascinating. To dismiss them as affected or artificial would be foolish.

The most engaging work strikes a balance between old-master-style rendering and nontraditional use of color and space as well as subversive imagery. Craftsmanship does not undo the peculiar pictures but serves them, adding depth and weight.

Irving Norman, "Flight" (1955), egg tempera on gesso panel, 17 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches

In Irving Norman’s “Flight” (1955), a rocket ship barnstorms across a cloudless blue sky; its nude passengers situated like peas in a pod. In the distance, the landscape recedes from view, becoming a patchwork of geometric shapes. The deliberate tension between pictorial realism and abstraction is severe, which helps to keep the viewer off-balance, uneasy.

John Wilde, "The Wildehouse" (1952), oil on wood panel, 11 3/4 x 16 inches

The gaggle of nude women in John Wilde’s “The Wildehouse” (1952) inhabit a large country house; some prance and preen on the roof and porch while others pop in and out of bedroom and bay windows. They appear frozen, almost startled by the presence of the viewer. The picture is as uncanny as it is traditional. In addition to the rogue band of nudists, the colors are too clear, too crisp. I love it.

Jared French, "Murder" (1942), egg tempera on gesso panel, 17 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches

In Jared French’s “Murder” (1942), a nude man with bloody hands stands over an ashen cadaver. Like Italian Renaissance painters, French uses egg tempera paint, which is as vivid as it is flat. The artist’s choice of medium is traditional, but his use of color is not. The flesh resembles the pastel hues found on Easter eggs or Bazooka Bumble Gum, not human beings.

George Tooker, "Girl in the Window" (c. 1978), egg tempera on gesso panel
Federico Castellon, "Veronica's Veil" (1937), oil on canvas 18 x 13 inches

The wall-eyed girl in George Tooker’s “Girl in the Window” (c.1978) vacantly stares at the viewer, as if she were a drowning in an opium haze. The handling of the figure recalls Giotto, but the saturated color palette is strictly 1970s Playboy centerfold. In Federico Castellon’s “Veronica’s Veil,” a woman’s head mutates into curls of flames. This is not just another picture of a woman with her head on fire. She inhabits an unspecified space, which is neither here nor there. This is dreamtime.

Hughie Lee-Smith, "Untitled" (1954), oil on Masonite, 16 x 36 inches

In Hughie Lee-Smith’s stark untitled painting from 1954, a black man in suit and tie leans against the ledge of a tenement rooftop as he overlooks a ramshackle cityscape. By far, this is the most direct painting in the show. Though the picture lacks the pictorial strangeness of its neighbors, the composition is mysterious, brooding. Who is this man, what brought him to the roof, and why?

I loved this exhibition. I think everyone should visit the gallery, and check out the artists in the show. Why? These artists were able to employ traditional technique and craft without sacrificing personal vision and individual idiosyncrasies. Unlike the swinging dicks of the New York School, they were not caught up in bombast and machismo. Plus, I’ve seen a lot weird paintings in my life, but I have never seen weird paintings that were as quiet, understated and modest as the work on view here. Quite simply, the show encourages a sense of wonder.

Otherworldliness is on view until January 21 at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (24 West 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan).

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