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by Donald Kuspit
Steven Assael, "Paintings & Drawings," Mar. 19-May 2, 2009, at Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10151

It seems to me that there are at least four kinds of realism (no less): (1) naïve or observational realism, which assumes that the world is what it appears to be, that is, that reality is a matter of appearances, or can be "reduced" to observed appearances; (2) esthetic realism, which emphasizes the surface qualities rather than spatial solidity of objects, sometimes presenting them as all surface -- almost all pure color and subtle texture, giving them an exciting immediacy they might not otherwise have if they were seen as mere matter of fact (this is the ambition of Impressionist Realism); (3) existential realism, which deals with what Daniel Bell, in his essay "The Return of the Sacred?," calls "the core questions that confront all human groups in the consciousness of existence; how one meets death, the meaning of tragedy, the nature of obligation, the character of love," the "recurrent questions which are cultural universals, to be found in all societies where men have become conscious of the finiteness of existence," and which invariably inform our sense of reality, however unconsciously; and (4) humanist realism, which means, in Julien Benda’s words in The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, "a sensibility for the abstract quality of what is human," or as Herbert Read puts it in his introduction to Benda’s book, "humanism seeks the ‘constants’ that are manifest in the historical past," which, as Read says, quoting Goethe, has nothing to do with "the illusion of a higher reality."

In naïve realism there is no tension or dialectic between appearance and reality; the latter is collapsed into the former, making for a sense of seamless, self-same reality, reality innocently one with itself. In the second, third and fourth kinds of reality there is an interplay -- sometimes ironic -- between routinely known everyday appearance and esthetically, existentially, or humanistically "re-cognized" reality. The second, third and fourth kinds of realism make us conscious of meanings we are often unconscious of -- meanings implicit in appearances, "abstract" meanings that are felt when we experience appearances as uncannily real. I think art justifies its existence -- becomes serious rather than just another shallow and transiently charismatic cultural phenomenon -- when it helps us intuit them: invokes, as it were, the esthetic, existential, human realities "latent" in appearances. I suggest that naïve realism is insufficiently artful and thus comparatively insignificant, however undoubtedly "interesting" it is to bring some physical particular into objective focus, that is, seeing it for what it apparently -- but never really -- is. Naïve realist works are not completely memorable, because they lack the universal esthetic, existential and human interest that would give them lasting value, allowing us to return to them -- re-engage them with yet another look -- without becoming bored.  

Realists whose works successfully integrate esthetics, existentialism and humanism, with no loss of observational acumen -- respect for the material facts -- are "ultimate realists." Steven Assael aspires to be one; a few works convince me that he is one, above all Passengers (2008).

This is not the place to offer an extensive analysis of that work, only to note the picture window behind the principal figures, ambiguously an Old Master painting of an Italianate landscape, indicating Assael’s awareness of historical precedent, that is, the implicit presence of tradition or historical constants. There is also great attention to esthetic detail, esthetic intensifying of sensuous detail, quite visible in the clothing and skin of the sleeping passengers, and above all the subtle relationship of light and shadow, suggestive of muted tenebrism. Then there is the "human condition" of the sleeping passengers, that is, the unconsciousness which unites them even as it suggests they are tragically dead -- certainly dead to the world beyond the train window, the passing masterpiece of the landscape, extending to infinity unlike their cramped cabin. There is also their very physical closeness, suggesting sexual intimacy. Are they a ménage a trois, the blonde and brunette women servicing the man, all three in the sleep of exhaustion the day -- the landscape is alive with light -- after a night of rather complex sexual activity?

The two monkeys in Passengers, a traditional symbol of lust -- not to say "illicit love" -- makes the sexual point allegorically. This is, for instance, part of the point of a monkey’s appearance with the couple in Seurat’s Le Grand Jatte (1884-86). The dog that also accompanies Seurat’s couple is a symbol of fidelity, as it is in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage (1434) -- but there’s no dog in Assael’s painting, suggesting that the characters in his intimate drama are not exactly true to each other, however much they sleep together. The luggage-rack suspended over them -- a stroke of pictorial genius -- also seems sexually suggestive, partly because of its peculiarly voluptuous shape, mostly because it is a kind of hammock, as self-contained as a coffin, and like the coffin of the train compartment, an uncomfortable space in which one can sleep the sleep of the troubled dead. The sleeping figures are as inert as the luggage. 

Airplane Portrait (2008), a near-ultimate realist masterpiece, shows two of the sleeping young figures in Passengers in a different setting, but one also suggestive of travel and sexual adventure. They have flown high, and now have fallen, exhausted after their intimacy, perhaps because they flew too close to the ecstatic sun and been burned, their sexual wings now clipped, as it were, giving the golden youth an Icarian morbidity. The displacement of light in the eyeglasses of the male figure is a marvelous "gestural" moment.

Assael seems given to such highlighted gestural moments, as the grand painterly brushstroke that accompanies Tatiana (2006) suggests. It’s as stately as she is, and splits the picture in two, however much its radiant green reappears in the fur of her cap and the fur of the dog (male wolf?) accompanying her. Like the animal, it represents the artist’s "instinct," now directed toward art rather than toward the poised woman, as rationally represented as the gesture is irrational.
It’s a modernist moment, as it were, and the modernist aspect of the work is re-affirmed by its composition: two canvases, with the upper one, picturing the woman’s head, tilted forward, adding to its relief-like appearance, while the lower one, picturing the animal, is flat on the wall. The ingenious synthesis of painting and sculpture -- or rather the implication of sculpture -- seems to work. It is a typically modernist attempt to break down the boundaries between the mediums.

The heads of Cassandra and Julie (2008) -- the one other work I regard as an "ultimate realist" painting -- have a firm sculpted look, even as they are modeled in painterly light and shadow. The abrupt contrast between the bright red fur-trimmed coat of the red-haired woman -- the fur giving her a sexual undertone (Venus in furs?) -- and the dark coat of the brown-haired woman is as modernist in its dissonance as it is traditional in its symbolism. And of course "Cassandra" is an unfortunate prophet -- she sees the future (realist painting?), but no one believes her. Assael struggles to integrate traditional and modernist ideas of art, but he also keeps them apart, inviting us to compare and cross-examine them: Which is esthetically better, which is more existentially meaningful, which gets the gist of the human more convincingly?

Paintings such as Untitled (Superman) (2006) and Costume Party #1 (2007) are executed in an older style and deal with an older subject matter -- the imagery of club scene characters which gave Assael a certain notoriety -- as their dates indicate. They seem more modernist, by reason of their strong reds, which stand out of the paintings with abstract force, in contrast to the later traditionalist-type paintings, where the reds are fewer and more subdued, and blend into the atmosphere. Both types of painting have the same sexual undercurrent, more explicitly in the earlier paintings, where the male and female figures are in very different emotional worlds, as the contrast between the stately glamour girls in the Costume Party # 1 and the melancholy, forlorn Superman -- not so super (perhaps unable to fly, that is, get it up) -- make clear.

Perhaps Assael’s most convincing marriage of modernist abstraction and traditionalist imagery are in his extraordinary drawings -- pure perceptual, esthetic and psychodramatic epiphanies. The pencil and paper drawing of the Big Dress (2008) is a tour de force of technical brilliance, from the intricate ornamental line -- a lightning stroke of pure modernist gesture -- that rims the dress to its complication of folds. That line is like a strand of beautiful hair, reminding us that in the Renaissance the sign of a genius was his ability to render the subtlety of hair, a point made when Giovanni Bellini asked Albrecht Dürer for the brush with which he painted hair -- Bellini wanted to emulate its exquisiteness -- and Dürer said it was the same kind of brush that Bellini used. The exquisitely intricate lines that detail every inch of the body of the African-American nude in another drawing (also 2008) -- she faces us in all her shameless beauty and esthetic perfection -- are also as formally and sensually pleasurable as the excited line on the dress. 

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.