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Back to Reviews 98


chilled serenity
by Robert Mahoney  

Lullaby II

All images courtesy Sperone Westwater
except Freedom to Share.

Freedom to Share
from the 1995
Whitney Biennial


To Die For1997

Free for All

   Frank Moore, "Paintings," Mar. 28-Apr. 25, 1998, at Sperone Westwater, 142 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.

Throughout the AIDS crisis, the American artist Frank Moore has let his imagination run loose through a Hieronymous Bosch vision of hospitals, syringes, pills, intravenous bags, beds and bedding. Some of his greatest works send a surreal SOS about AIDS, in which images of the disease melt into arctic or woodland landscapes, or hide in clichéd visions of domestic harmony. Moore can be comic, as highlighted in his paintings in the1995 Whitney Biennial, and can appear as a prophet of doom. He has found a rare place of high respect, in a nihilistic and conceptually playful art world, for his morally based figurative painting.

Moore's most recent New York exhibition, held a few months ago at Sperone Westwater, found him on shifting terrain. On the one hand, Moore continues to examine the fantasy world of the sickbed. On the other, he is very topical, notably in a bizarre allegory based on last summer's murder of Gianni Versace. And then there are works that reach for something else altogether. This mixed oeuvre, which reflects the transitional feeling about AIDS in our time, may account for why this exhibition seemed to pass so quietly by, without fanfare.

Two paintings, Lullaby and Lullaby II, show the artist at the top of his form. Moody, whimsical, serious and sad, the canvases depict bedscapes of wintry fluffed-up pillows playing Call-of-the-Wild background to tiny grazing buffalo or polar bears feeding on fish. In refusing to indulge in the terror of syringes and the sickbed, Moore has created rather idyllic scenes, quiet and beautifully composed. But then, their inhabiting spirits -- buffaloes and polar bears -- remain in a bleak winter landscape, foraging for food.

The chilled serenity of a winter day may signify a near-death experience, the engine of life running low. Here is the paradox that keeps these paintings fascinating: calm, gentle and resigned, they may also be bleaker than anything Moore has conjured before. This may be Moore's contemporary outpost of Robert Louis Stevenson's Land of Counterpane, the sickbed world of worlds within worlds. At its last stand. We will see.

The Versace allegory, To Die For, operates as the wake-up call to the other paintings. It is very strange. A medusa head bearing the features of Kate Moss, her hair all snaky, has been severed from her body, decapitated, in its fall breaking a vial of Gucci Envy perfume. In the upper right hand corner, painted as if dropped on a marble staircase, is a fax message from Gianni Versace to Frank Moore, dated July 15, 1997. Real or not, the message claims contemporaneity and trauma. The frisson of tabloid horror fills the canvas.

In classical mythology, the Medusa represents forbidden beauty -- one look and you turn to stone. Here, in Moore's Return to the Valley of the Dolls domicile, the Medusa may represent the spell that glamour and fashion casts over art. It's true, at least according to fashion flackery, that with Gianni went a whole way of looking at culture. Like all tabloid communications, this painting has a strident, urgent tone that rattles your composure. At one point I thought the glammy Medusa looked like Versace's murderer, Andrew Cunanan, in drag, and at another time a scary rebuttal to the press's recurrent use of the pallbearer image of Elizabeth Hurley in "the dress."

Sperone Westwater's smaller back gallery was dedicated to Emigrants (1997), a painting of two young men walking on water, carrying one of Jasper Johns' American flag paintings wrapped in bubble wrap. It's clearly New York harbor, as the lower Manhattan skyscape is visible in the background. The two young men (who may or may not be gay) hold the wrapped flag upside down.

I get it: American values are inverted, the men walk away with Christlike clear-the-temple-of-the-moneychangers finality, saying goodbye to New York, and America, and its art. My first thought was, if the style were a bit more Moore and less Alex Katz meets Bo Bartlett, perhaps I could see the anger in the piece. But then I recalled that Moore's Lullabyes also combine calm surface and bleak soul.

As a work which begins to register disgust at the values of the so-called American Century we can expect to hear more and more about, perhaps Emigrants arrives on time. With its Atlantic seaboard, New York harbor statement, Emigrants carries a lot of cultural baggage. In my version of Emigrants, these young men would be renters priced out of their home, run over by a gigantic Utility vehicle and sent notice by their HMO that their coverage for injury treatment has been denied. I'm not sure an inverted Jasper Johns flag signifies all this, but I give Moore the benefit of the doubt. His work is of the moment -- mastering an old style, rehearsing a new.

ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.