I have the feeling that I am perched inside a teenage girl’s mouth. I am looking at two classmates who are seated directly in front of me, and the backboard beyond. The image on the blackboard seems to mirror what I am seeing. Or am I inside my own mouth, pushing the tip off a pencil through the space between my teeth and their roots, while glancing at the three-hole notebook on my desk (do these still exist?), as well as the classroom in front of me? It seems that I can see two places at once, inside and outside my body. Or, I can see both what’s outside and inside my body, which suggests that I am transparent, like a jellyfish.
These are some of the thoughts I had while looking at the painting “Kissing cavity” (2021), which is one of nine included in the exhibition Danica Lundy: Three Hole Punch at Magenta Plains (February 5–March 10, 2022), the artist’s debut in New York. (She has had solo exhibitions in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and South Africa.)
Later I read in an interview between Lundy and Annabel Keenan (Cultured, February 8, 2022) that she “conceived of ‘Kissing cavity’ from a ‘boob’s-eye view,’ imagining painfully visible, budding breasts having their own visual agency over the scene.”
Lundy’s use of transparent planes (such as an open car door), elongation of forms (a bare leg), multiple perspectives, atmospheric lighting, trompe l’oeil details, and the body’s expulsions, particularly sweat, is a sharp contrast to much of the figurative painting being shown and celebrated in New York. Rather than working within the long-established conventions of a three-dimensional space, which proposes a stable world, she seamlessly incorporates filmic devices such as overlays and exaggerated close-ups that are often used in horror films, as well as microscopic and magnified views, to great effect.
Most of the figures in her paintings are adolescents and young adults trying to interact, while feeling varying levels of discomfort and comfort within their changing bodies. In almost all of the paintings, Lundy establishes a deep space, as in “Kissing cavity,” which pulls the viewer into a world at once familiar, unsettling, and strange. Looking at her paintings is like walking around in a maze with something interesting to see on every inch of the surface. The tension between the details and the overall image is taut and perfectly pitched; everything feels necessary.
Engaged with the works’ simultaneity and transparency, and one thing becoming another, I happily got lost in the looking. Lundy delights in details and in making impossible amalgamations out of ordinary things. She has a flair for the dramatic and for unfolding multiple and diverse strands of reality in her work. I had the sense that she knows all the characters in her paintings, and that they are not just props to be moved around.
In “U of u” (2021), Lundy depicts a man with a medical kit wrapping a young woman’s straightened leg with an ACE bandage, while she chugs water from a plastic bottle. The viewpoint is from someone looking down through what looks like a shaft, but what is it exactly? Whose body has Lundy placed us in? How does being inside this body shape how we see the world? The last question seems fundamental, obvious, and important. This is one of the themes the artist returns to in her visceral evocations of the sweating, vomiting, active human body.
In “Compressions” (2021), one hand extending down from the painting’s top edge squeezes the fingers of another hand, pressing on the sternum of a young woman’s bare chest. And yet, even as I write this, I realize that this does not begin to fully describe what I am looking at. Is the woman wearing a top that depicts bare breasts or is that her skin, which is separate from the greenish-tinted layer beneath it — what I read as the dermis? Lundy explores these collisions and intersections in pursuit of the questions: What is the body made of, literally and metaphorically? Where do one’s sensations end? How does it feel to live in a world of multiple colliding realities? What does it mean to inhabit something that is constantly changing, and over which you do not have complete control?
Because of the plethora of details and multiple perspectives, viewers may not notice how deftly composed these paintings are. In the largest, “Spark up, gas down” (2021), which measures 8 by 12 feet, I suggest the viewer start in the painting’s lower right-hand corner, where a hand is tilting an open bottle of booze toward you, offering you some. It seems you are sitting in the passenger seat of a car, looking out the side window at the gathering of cars and peers around you. If you shift your attention above the hand holding the bottle and the face behind it, looking at you, it becomes quickly apparent that Lundy’s placement of the figures’ heads forms an irregular arc that pulls you deeper into the space of the painting. She is able to do this because of the fluent flexibility of her brushwork, which ranges from sharp detail to loose, evocative strokes of paint.
Another thing Lundy does — and I have not seen this achieved so masterfully in figurative painting since I first wrote about Robert Birmelin, an unjustly overlooked painter, in the mid-1980s — is to physically implicate the viewer. In “Spark up, gas down,” we are inside a car with the world going on around us. As viewers, we seem to always inhabit a partially seen body inside the space of the painting. We are in no way superior to the people we are looking at.
In addition to Birmelin’s jarring crowd scenes, Lundy’s work brought up memories of Alfred Leslie’s “Killing Cycle” (1967-78), a series of dramatized, tightly choreographed, moodily lit paintings about the death of his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, and Ivan Albright’s morbidly captivating “Picture of Dorian Gray” (1943-44), with its celebration of human decay. One reason I bring up these unlikely and certainly unfashionable associations, which Lundy might not even know, is to emphasize that she is following her own trajectory and that she comes across as having no interest in making a stylistic or subjective twist to the well-known conventions of figurative painting. Rather than set out to be original, I think she has a deeper ambition. I imagine Lundy wants to stay true to the complexity of her feelings, sharp states of consciousness and distinct memories, however banal they might be, that she experienced on her way to becoming a painter.
Danica Lundy: Three Hole Punch continues at Magenta Plains (94 Allen Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 10.
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