Painter Victor Pesce, it could be said, spent his life plying the divide between the “there” and “not there.” His most familiar work — those late austere still lifes from the 1990s, consisting often of a single bottle or box on a tabletop — seems at once earthly and otherworldly, a unique combination of atmospheric closeness and analytical distance. Imagine a Precisionist Morandi.
Exhibited less often are his paintings of faces, presented up close and tightly cropped: an approach that sounds intimate, but in fact results in hauntingly anonymous images, thanks to the same abbreviated modeling and delicately unnatural colors.
The current exhibition Faces/Places at Elizabeth Harris Gallery presents a very different and less familiar side of the artist, who died eight years ago at the age of 71. The biggest surprise of the nearly two dozen paintings of faces, spanning 25 years, is a roomful of early Expressionist works, last shown as a group in 1984. With livid hues and slashing brushwork worthy of the CoBrA painters, these canvases show Pesce heartily pursuing the “here and now.” He seems driven by flights of fancy, chasing down one element, then another; scale, color, and direction shift as the artist moves from one eye to the next. In two paintings, the slight clefts of an upper lip enlarge, lighten, and unfurl as sails. An angling stream of comets in “Powhatan’s Daughter” (1982) becomes an eye, nose, and chin, distending the head until it seems ready to burst. Also apparent in this last painting are intimations of volumes about the nose: a glimmer of the more naturalistic style to come.
In this context, the familiar faces from the ’90s take on a new aspect. His later, deliberative approach didn’t arise from an aversion to spontaneous experimentation; it was a reengagement with the world rather than a retreat from it. Did his relocation to rural Connecticut and growing interest in still life have an impact? Quite likely; in any event, it’s safe to say that finding and resolving had now become as important to the painter as seeking.
With its dark, brash outlines and surprisingly sensitive interior modeling, “Blue Angel” (1994) could be a transitional work. Traces of Expressionism remain in some ambiguous forms: does the arm sport a displaced joint, or an arm band, or tattoo? By comparison, most of the ’90s paintings define their subjects more concisely, even as their identities remain elusive. The one recognizable image is “Fixated” (1993), based on a photograph of Franz Kafka; here, faint shadows carve, with particular precision, the nose lengthening above an anxious mouth.
The faces continued to evolve. The last images in Faces/Places are more loosely cropped, with air around the heads allowing a complex, if subtle, sculpting of volumes. But just as the artist offers fresh intimations of the “real,” he takes away others. Complexions turn a surreal maroon or green-gray; eyes smolder eerily as vacant planes of color, seemingly lit from behind. The artist’s brush with Expressionism appears to be returning, only now subsumed in a process of minute modeling.
The exception among these late paintings is a 2004 self-portrait, with its dark eyes and reassuringly pink features. Multiple lines crease its rather world-weary countenance, while bare shoulders heighten an impression of vulnerable resolve. One senses an artist confronting himself, and finding the mysteries of a box or bottle, multiplied a hundred times over.
Victor Pesce: Faces/Places continues at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 20.
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