I stopped by Francis Naumann's 57th Street gallery last week to watch Kathleen Gilje install her altered series of 48 female portraits by John Singer Sargent, women that Kathleen has undressed and given the breasts of 48 living women. I got to know Kathleen in 2005, when she painted my portrait as the young Rembrandt for a show at Naumann three years ago featuring paintings of critics and curators, such as Rosalee Goldberg and the late Robert Rosenblum, posed in the guise of famous paintings from art history. That exhibition and its subject matter have retained surprising legs, as it was the subject of a paper by Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic of SUNY Purchase at the College Art Association meeting in Los Angeles last month.
The Sargent pastiches are hung salon-style at Naumann and are just small enough to hold in your hand. At first the redundancy of teets seems to annihilate the sexual urge, until your realize that the true subject of the paintings is a vulnerability bordering on infantilization. It has always been Gilje's painterly fate to bring us back to the origins of the classic images in paint which we art intellectuals have absorbed since the cradle. At heart, she is the product of her conservative Dutch genes, in that she wishes to have intercourse with the past. Formerly, as in the paintings she exhibited for many years with the dealer Jay Gorney, death, the memento mori, was her means of connection, adding skulls and bones to famous creations, but as she has matured, Kathleen has decided to animate her concerns with the imitations of life.
The show of her paintings of art critics and art historians sought to preserve for the ages the vitality of romantic egoistes such as Arthur Danto and Linda Nochlin. Now, with a brace of breasts, Kathleen seeks to have us open our mouths and drink from her work. On TMZ's television gossip show the other night, one of its female correspondents remarked that, apropos of a snap of a famous actress handling two ripe melons at the supermarket, "one is always bigger than the other," and, indeed this peculiar metonymy drives the 96 breasts that Kathleen has painted. They cannot help but obliterate the fine society of faces which were the locus of Sargent's eroticism and, of course, they eliminate the fashionable clothes which veiled his desires.
A current trope making the rounds is that "pornography is the new rock and roll," recently manifested by gris-gris New Orleans musician Dr. John's intention to run porn star and Baton Rouge native Stormy Daniels for the U.S. Senate against right-wing Republican David Vitter, who clung to his office after soliciting a prostitute in the District of Columbia. Gilje's new work inquires as to the price of all this breastly objectification.
One cost is the weakness of the nude model, an experience I know well after spending a summer on the frigid Maine coast in 1995 as a nude model for the artist Cindy Tower. The other is the viewerís loss of self in primitive needs that can revolve backwards through puberty all the way to womb. In such an exchange, only the artist, whether Kathleen Gilje or Vivid Video, retains control.
"Kathleen Gilje: 48 Portraits, Sargentís Women," Feb. 26-Apr. 10, 2009, at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 24 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).