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PHILADELPHIA — Tal R’s current exhibition, The Minute, at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery gave me a headache. Throughout the show there are works that hang vertically, when it seems they should hang horizontally. It felt like strings were being pulled taut upwardly from my brow.
“Promenade” (2014), the first painting one sees when entering the gallery, is one of these works. It is evocative of Fauvism, in its bright, expressive color and portrayal of women with parasols in early 20th century dress, out for a walk in the park, and hangs at 96 inches tall. But, my mind insisted, in order for the horizontally oriented figures to stand upright, the painting needs to rotate 45 degrees clockwise. At first, this struck me as a gimmick, because the work seemed so indebted to earlier art movements. I tilted my head to the left and looked at the painting some more. I wavered between a laugh and a “what?
It was like looking a little too long at a PDF or JPEG image that needed to be rotated. In front of a computer or viewing contemporary art, we’ve grown quite used to images being askew. But Tal R’s referencing of artists such as Manet, Munch, and Matisse sets up the visual expectations that horizontal and vertical planes won’t be completely upset. Works by these seminal artists are deeply embedded in the Western mind at this point. The visual experiment wouldn’t work, perhaps, if he were referencing more contemporary scenes.
By calling them “experiments” I’m not suggesting that the work has failed. Tal R’s experiments are intended to test an idea or to make a discovery. He wants to test himself, no doubt, but he also wants his audience to confront their own expectations.
Tal R reminds us that what’s painted is inherently fiction, that the world of a painting is a reality unto itself. “Rosa Smoke” (2013), for instance, freezes an impossible moment. A woman sits on a chair’s armrest smoking a cigarette, but her hips hang far enough over the edge that she shouldn’t be comfortable. Yet, she looks cool and undisturbed. With pink smoke coming from her cigarette, it’s not hard to understand why.
There’s more visual play in the composition than Rosa’s apparent comfort, though. Diagonal lines are everywhere in this painting. The green and black crosshatched wallpaper serves as a backdrop and contrasts with the vertical lines on Rosa’s shirt. The mysterious black half-oval on the wall breaks up this pattern — is it simply a shape on the wall, or is it a portal? The diagonal line of shadow that runs from the chimney across Rosa’s chair creates the sense that something out of the painting’s purview is creating the shadow. But that shadow doesn’t continue, as it seems it should, on the wall. Collectively, this heightens the painting’s air of mystery. It also confirms that the artist likes to play in his painting; he’s not merely engaging in intellectual exercises.
Over the past several years, Tal R has based paintings on the exteriors of sex clubs and porn shops. “Sex Palace” (2016) is part of this series. As he told Jennifer Samet, in an interview for Hyperallergic, “I need to throw something at people, to set up expectations, and start talking to people. If you were just to say, ‘façades,’ that is not interesting. But if I say it is a sex shop, people are interested.” In this painting, and a few of the others in the show, a mixture of pigment and rabbit skin glue makes the canvas glisten, as if sprinkled with fairy dust. This element pushes these works into the realm of the extraordinary.
Another work that makes compelling use of rabbit skin glue is “Vogelmask” (2014). This work, which echoes the Fauvist coloring of “Promenade” and “Rosa Smoke,” occupies a darker space. In the middle of the painting, a seemingly naked and lone figure wears a bird mask (vogel is the German and Dutch word for bird). The gender is ambiguous because the genital area is painted black and the contours of the chest are indistinct. The setting appears to be at night in the privacy of one’s home.
The glistening painting calls to mind William Carlos Williams’s poem, “Danse Russe” (1938), which contains the lines:
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
Tal R’s painting conjures a feeling of lonely promiscuity. Unlike the Williams poem, it doesn’t seem to celebrate being alone. Neither does it seem to pose the question that appears at the end of the poem, “Who shall say I am not/the happy genius of my household?” Tal R instead wants to access the darker recesses of our sexual lives.
In his paintings of exteriors that lack people, the doors and windows of buildings are always closed, creating the impression of an abandoned city. “Red Roof” (2016) looks the most at home in a city like Philadelphia. Compressed into the left side of the canvas are rowhouses, telephone lines, and a fire hydrant. Perhaps the most exciting part of the painting is a large shape smack in the middle of the canvas. At quick glance, this mass could trick anyone into thinking it’s a sailboat, with a red, pink, and purple sail, like a malformed, tricolor flag. More likely, the shapes represent a building, filtered through Tal R’s imagination. The lower portion consists of green polka dots and a closed red door. The bright horizon suggests the painting takes place during the day, yet the aura the image evokes isn’t cheerful. There is an air of suspense. The door could open, something benign could emerge, or, just as easily, something with sinister intent.
While Tal R demonstrates a deep knowledge of earlier art movements, such as Fauvism and Expressionism, these eras do not constrict him. In some works, the traits of these periods engage with the ways that our digital experiences alter our analog lives, such as “Promenade.” But his painting is also a reminder of the value in the unsaid or the unseen. He places emphasis on the viewer’s perspective, encouraging an inward gaze and a heightened sense of intrigue, at a time when it seems that the privacy of one’s thoughts is only available in a limited edition.
Tal R: The Minute continues at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery (333 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through November 16.