With surfaces made from layers of paint repeatedly scraped off with a meat cleaver, the figures in paintings by the late Leon Golub (1922-2004) seem constructed from substances other than skin. Antique statuary inspired his earliest paintings, but he is best known for a different type of timeless creature -- the mercenary fighter, a ghoulish figure who appears weathered and flayed, caught in a theater of violence.
In the late 1970s, Golub created a series of more than 100 portraits of public figures, ranging from Richard Nixon to Fidel Castro and Generalissimo Francisco Franco. During the Regan era, he began making monumentally scaled images of interrogations and beatings. By the late ‘80s, Golub’s works had become engulfed in brushstrokes and textural rubbings that made them mysterious and difficult to read -- a pictorial metaphor for the secrecy surrounding government brutality. Many of his works are done on unstretched linen hung from brass grommets inserted into the fabric, bringing military uniforms and tents to mind.
Just in time for the election, a selection of Golub’s paintings have gone on view at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in SoHo, Oct. 16-Nov. 15, 2008. Titled "Did It!" (raising the question of just what was done by whom), the exhibition includes undefined dramas of racial conflict, with black soldiers co-opted into enforcing their own oppression. The predominately blood-colored The Arrest III (1992), for example, features a black mercenary restraining a black prisoner by the shoulder, as a white soldier cuffs the prisoner’s hands behind his back.
Black, turquoise and white paint is sliced, slashed and dry brushed across Night Scene III (1989) like bruise-colored fireworks. A lunging figure brandishes a flashlight that weakly illuminates another man looking back over one shoulder, as if checking to make sure he is unobserved. Their captive seems to fall into the top right of the canvas, his torso peppered with splatters of wound-red paint. The works are priced from $40,000 for a drawing to $450,000 for a large painting.
Like victims of the sadism Golub’s characters act out, Berlinde De Bruyckere’s headless figures are also gashed and bruised. In "After Nature," the post-apocalyptic group show curated by Massimiliano Gioni at the New Museum this summer, two of De Bruckyere’s sculptures were seen to eerie effect, displayed in glass cases like mummies unearthed after some unnamed holocaust. The Flemish artist’s first United States solo exhibition is at Yvon Lambert, Oct. 15-Nov. 15, 2008.
De Bruyckere’s parents had a butcher shop, and hanging meat has been part of her life since childhood. She came to prominence in Europe when her hide-covered sculpture of a horse collapsing on a table was shown in the 2003 Venice Biennale. The current exhibition is dominated by Behind Sadness (2007-08), a life-sized equine carcass fashioned from grey wax and suspended from a gibbet-like metal framework standing on a platform of dark brown wood in the middle of the large gallery space.
Reminiscent of slaughterhouse paintings by Rembrandt, Soutine and Francis Bacon, the horse has an undeniable impact, but De Bruyckere’s several other works -- tenderly crafted headless life-size wax figures, with normal legs and feet and hollow twisted torsos -- are even more painful to see. Piëta (2008) features one armless male figure holding up another, echoing the elongated mother and son of Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta (transformed in the weeks before his death into a nearly gothic study of attenuated form). Red pigment spreads like blood beneath the waxy skins of De Bruyckere’s fragmented men.
In her Ghent studio, a large building that was once a Catholic school for boys, De Bruyckere draws from live models and casts their body parts in plaster and wax. Detached limbs are later twisted into finished compositions that are taken apart, reinforced with epoxy and metal, and finally put together again.
Takman (2008) is a bent over figure with human legs whose upper limbs turn into dangling fleshy branches. De Bruyckere omits the heads to keep the viewer’s attention on bodies, but headlessness also heightens their sense of helpless tragedy. The works are priced from €150,000 to €295,000.
Wax was also the primary material for the Italian impressionist sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), and four of his works (as if supplying the faces missing from De Bruyckere’s bodies) can be seen at Peter Freeman Inc. at 560 Broadway, Sept. 11-Nov. 1, 2008. The show is organized around the first public exhibition of Bambino Malato (sick child) (1895), a sculpture owned by the descendents of Louis Vauxcelles (the French critic infamous for coining the terms "Fauvism" and "Cubism"). Still in Rosso’s original glass vitrine, the sculpture is displayed like a natural history specimen, a delicate little portrait illustrating the morbidly romanticized fin-de-siecle theme of innocence lost to child mortality.
Rosso’s fragile portraits look more like decapitated heads than most portrait busts, perhaps because their material (plaster covered with wax) makes them resemble a skeleton covered with skin. Carne altrui (the flesh, or meat, of others) (1883) appears to emerge from a rock. Added pigment makes the piece look as if it was unearthed from a grave, although the face is idealized, not rotten. The two other sculptures on view are heads of children that also seem frozen in the act of dissolving. None of the works are for sale.
Carnivalesque disruption, rather than melancholy tranquility, reigns at "Unshamelessfulnessly," Robert Melee’s latest solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery, Oct. 1-Nov. 12, 2008. Instead of liquefying flesh, however, Melee seeks to solidify paint and cloth, and often envelops life-size fiberglass mannequins in layers of plaster covered with bright enamel goop.
Melee is notorious for his harrowing videos and installations starring his half-dressed, heavily made-up, possibly intoxicated mother, gamely acting out her son’s fantasies of life as an inhibition-free alcoholic harridan. Incest is sometimes implied -- for example, when Melee applies paint to her crotch and seems to pleasure himself behind her. She even spent the evening of one of his openings clad in fishnets and a feather boa, drinking beer in a Plexiglas cage.
At the same time, much of Melee’s work is also a playful celebration of kitsch. Bright enamel Op art paintings are made with beer bottle caps (their number implying a hefty consumption of booze). Cloth coated in layers of bright enamel paint is hung on the wall like petrified shower curtains, or draped over knick-knacks like circus shrouds, punningly erasing boundaries between painting and sculpture.
Looking from a distance like either a metallic fragment of a tree or an enormous blackened turd, His Curtain (2008) is a classically armless figure with head and one knee resting on the floor, while the other leg thrusts up into the air. A shiny solidified orange and turquoise cloth dangles from his raised foot.
In Her Chair (2008), another mannequin covered with dripping layers of colorful poured enamel paint is balanced acrobatically on her head, with her crossed feet resting on the back of an old chair. Both hands and feet are so covered with plaster and paint that they have turned into digitless extremities.
And Anti-Inter Shamelessness Substitution (2008) is an ordinary stove that appears from a distance to be bisected by a section of a wall covered with bright enamel bottle caps, like a multicolored ax thrust into the comfort of suburban domesticity. The works are priced from $12,000 for a small sculpture to $65,000 for the largest painting.
Nicole Cherubini is another exuberant sculptor who is fond of incongruous combinations. Her two-venue show is shared between Smith-Stewart on the Lower East Side, Oct. 9-Nov. 16, 2008, and the project room of D’Amelio Terras in Chelsea, Oct. 4-Nov. 1, 2008, giving gallery visitors in either neighborhood an opportunity to see her crazed amalgamations of ceramic vessels, painting and drawing.
Room Study for Smith-Stewart (2008) is a digital image of an antique print of the Porzellankabinett (a porcelain filled room designed in 1713 for Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace). Attacked and almost vandalized with splotches and lines of paint, it provides an introduction to Cherubini’s blasphemous (but loving) destruction of ceramic conventions.
In Nestoris II (2008), a perfectly wheel-thrown porcelain cylinder is placed on top of roughly pinched earthenware sections spotted with shiny curdled areas of flowing glaze, bringing influences as various as Classical Greek pottery, George Ohr, and children’s twisted sculpture to mind. Tiny curved handles of no conceivable use are scattered across the vessel’s surface, and a few stone slabs (one covered with white paint) are piled on the floor below, further emphasizing Cherubini’s allusions to ancient ruins.
Hydras (2008) is a mostly white multi-part vessel on view in Chelsea. The neck is covered with fragments of snakes like the cast sea creatures in a 15th-century platter by Bernard Palissy, and a spin-art motif appears on a central cube. A pair of drawings in a vertical freestanding frame is attached to the pot with a thin green beam. Prices range from $6,000 for one framed drawing to $18,000 for a multi-part piece combining a large ceramic vessel and drawings.
Snakes in unexpected places also appear in "Man Eater," an exhibition of works on paper by the 25-year-old self-taught Canadian artist Aurel Schmidt, on view at Deitch Projects at 76 Grand Street, Oct. 4-Nov. 1, 2008. Executed in colored pencil and various fluids including beer, blood, Pepto-Bismal, urine, semen and acrylic paint, Schimdt’s pictures allude to vanitas still-lifes by Dutch Old Masters, Archimboldo’s trompe-l’oeil heads constructed from animals and vegetables, and works by Picasso, de Kooning, Pollock and Morris Louis.
Weeping Woman (2008) is Schmidt’s update of Picasso’s famous portrait of Dora Maar, also representing the universal grief of women bereft in the Spanish Civil War. Debasing Picasso’s tragedy, Schmidt constructs the face from carefully drawn cigarette butts and worms, with eyes represented by two holes burned in the paper, eyelashes made of insects, and a mouth munching on a page from a tabloid newspaper headlining fears of terrorism.
In A Bitch Is a Bitch (2008), Schmidt turns her attention to Willem de Kooning’s famous Woman 1, transforming his desecrated female nude into painstakingly rendered debris. Schmidt’s version has cigarette butt teeth, a neck exuding smoke, breasts made of snakes and a spider web belly. The little pink air freshener tied to the crotch adds a finishing touch to this jaundiced caricature of womanhood, bringing YBA Sarah Lucas’ sculptural renditions of sexual organs as fish and bananas to mind.
Schmidt’s most satiric recreation of another artist’s work is perhaps So Damn Pure (2008), a copy of a Morris Louis stained abstraction that replaces glowing liquid paint with beer, blood, urine, Comet, Listerine and Cool-Aid. What next? The drawings are priced from $4,500 to $20,000 and quite a few are sold.
ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.