The Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel at 1076 Madison Avenue on New York’s Upper East Side prides itself on discretion, decorum, and detail. A who’s who of dead people has passed through its hallowed halls on their way to the underworld, including Judy Garland, Heath Ledger, Jim Henson, Mae West, Igor Stravinsky, Tennessee Williams, Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, Biggie Smalls, Candy Darling, Joan Rivers, Ayn Rand, and both of Donald Trump’s parents.
This diffuse, elite roster of the dearly departed has caught the attention of artist Cynthia Talmadge, who successfully captures the inherent grimness of funeral chapels, combined with the contrived austerity that celebrity deaths demand. Although titled 1076 Madison, Talmadge’s exhibition is actually housed several miles away, in a Chinatown micro-gallery called 56 Henry.
The exhibition features eight paintings by the artist, each depicting the Frank E. Campbell funeral home from different angles in an excruciatingly detailed pointillist style that recalls the work of neo-impressionists like Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Henri-Edmond Cross. Accordingly, Talmadge has costumed the white cube gallery’s normally stark walls with anachronistic, mint-green wallpaper and plush gray carpeting. The result is an eerie amalgamation of funeral home finery and the extravagant details of a 19th-century French artist salon. The subtext here is wonderfully mordant, if also flip. Through her decorative details, the artist seems to ask: What’s the difference, really, between a funeral parlor and the artists’ salon?
Perhaps there’s no difference at all. That’s certainly the unspoken message of Talmadge’s exhibition, for which she appropriates pointillism as the perfect aesthetic form to envisage a funeral home. There’s something intentionally plodding about the eight paintings on display. Like Claude Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedral paintings, Talmadge observes the changing atmospheric conditions of time, light, and weather on the façade of Frank E. Campbell. The result is deceptively laconic, an accumulation of impressions reiterating the same incantation on the primacy of death — even in society’s upper echelons. The mundanity of Frank E. Campbell’s exterior reveals the true banality of dying.
Few artists would dare address themes of death and alienation with as blunt a symbol as a funeral home, but Talmadge’s risk has borne rewards. The series is a haunting documentation of death’s relationship to class and aesthetics. There’s also a clear critique of the funeral business. After all, the namesake Frank E. Campbell was an industry innovator. Campbell earned his reputation as undertaker of the stars in 1926, when he hired paparazzi to cover the public viewing of silent film star Rudolph Valentino’s body. Police had to be called to hold back mobs of swarming fans in the parlor while Campbell scooped up press and notoriety for his gambit.
“Gatekeeping” is a term that keeps coming to mind when looking at Talmadge’s paintings. In their own ways, both the artists’ salon and funeral home are arbiters of taste. While the former decides what life should look like, the latter decides how life should end; a pitstop toward interment, the funeral home officiates a person’s passage into memory through the dramatic staging of a sendoff and the rituals of “paying respects.” Art history is similarly involved in the myth-making process for the dead, rarely casting an unfavorable spotlight on the artists it covers. Who wants to read a history of failed attempts? Like the funeral sermon, art history typically glorifies rather than criticizes, sanctifies rather than condemns.
The press release for 1076 Madison describes Talmadge’s paintings as “a particular brand of rarified melancholy,” but that description is a bit overblown. Actually, she follows a long history of artists who have unpacked America’s relationship to despair through architecture. Grant Wood and Edward Hopper spring to mind, as does Maureen Gallace. Like those artists, Talmadge excels at inscribing loneliness into brick and mortar. A latent, ill-formed unease develops on the emotional edge of her seemingly benign pointillist paintings. Anxiety accrues when the visitor considers the paradoxical absence of spectacle in an artwork that consists of literally thousands upon thousands of tiny dots.
This lack of spectacle also belies Frank E. Campbell’s reputation as funeral chapel to the stars. And unlike other funeral homes that masquerade as grandiose mansions, 1067 Madison’s exterior is discreet, with few architectural elements to pique a person’s interest. Perhaps this is why Talmadge emphasizes the building’s few staged elements: spotlights and surveillance cameras. For example, “View from 81st Street” (2018) is entirely devoted to those CCTV cameras monitoring the nearby sidewalk. And yet, all but one painting are devoid of life — and the one that does includes people is so obscured by falling snow that the four pedestrians simply blend into the building’s exterior.
Talmadge’s paintings mourn death as a process dominated by economic and cultural customs. Truly, it’s unsettling to think about how — even after one gives up the ghost — we must posthumously keep up appearances. The artifice of such expectations is the funeral home’s raison d’être, and Talmadge’s paintings highlight just how rote the act of mourning has become. Like an ersatz copy of a neo-impressionist painting, the funeral industry can only proxy sorrow.