If horror movies came in candy colors, you’d have "Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors," Jan. 27-Apr. 19, 2009, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A bizarre claim, to be sure, but how else to explain the man’s inimitably quavering brushstrokes? All those smudges and dabs can’t be aimed at precision; rather, they seem to come from the agitated hand of a man actively persecuted by spirits. They are literally like henpecks, these brushstrokes. Bonnard is the Don Knotts of painters.
He is haunted by ghosts in his own domestic apartment, where he remains suffocated by bourgeois luxury. His wife, Marthe Bonnard, hovers about like a specter, endlessly fussing with plates and dishes and a hundred small delicacies. This is a ritual that never ends, these little offerings, witnesses to his own passivity, this coming and going, like a recurring dream.
Bonnard’s women have the closed self-absorption of the matriarch, she who rules all with complacent authority, including our milquetoast hero. The artist can barely face her, even from behind the easel, and when he does, as in The White Tablecloth (1925), the figure in the picture turns with dark eyes to fix him with a knowing gaze. Worse, in the incredible Young Women in the Garden (1921-46), Renée Monchaty, Bonnard’s golden-haired lover from the 1920s, grins at him seductively from beyond the grave -- she had committed suicide after Bonnard married Marthe in 1925 -- while the dark figure of his wife, deceased 20 years later, looks on like a stone idol.
Another constant horror movie motif -- the dread of looking in the mirror, for fear of the ghastly transformations that might afflict one’s image -- is presaged in two Bonnard self-portraits, both showing the artist standing in front of his bathroom mirror, completely without pretense (in one he is shirtless), a row of grooming accessories depicted on a shelf along the bottom of the picture. Hairless, crepuscular, the artist shows himself stripped of any earthly glory -- so different from Picasso’s late satyriasis -- as if humbled by the closeness of death. Perhaps Bonnard’s corpselike self-portraits had something to do with their time, since they date to the period of the Holocaust.
A more tropical terror -- that would be voodoo -- overtakes the new paintings by yBa painter Peter Doig, who now lives and works in Trinidad (like Chris Ofili), on view in a double show at GBE in the West Village and Michael Werner Gallery on the Upper West Side. Though originally known for his lapidary images of the white world -- culverts converted into rainbows and landscapes viewed through lattices of tree limbs -- Doig has changed since moving to the Caribbean. He’s gone native.
Islands, palms, dugouts and mute, brown-skinned people: Doig’s motifs are about the engagement of the modern with the primitive, a late-19th-century theme that typically doesn’t turn out all that well for the civilized (or the native, for that matter). One hundred years ago it was Paul Gauguin and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899); a more recent low-art manifestation would be Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).
Thus, Doig depicts a shadowy figure emerging from a thicket of dense foliage (Jungle Painting, 2007); a dreaming girl apparently embedded in the heart of an ancient tree (Dark Girl, 2007); a white-garbed native standing on a strange geometric jungle altar (Maracas, 2008); and several spectral vampires raising their wings (such as Man Dressed as a Bat, 2007, a painting presumably inspired by Trinidad’s famous carnival).
Against this island iconography, or perhaps in concert with it, are several other works depicting a bald, mustachioed colonial -- not so different looking from Bonnard’s self-portraits, though a world away -- playing ping-pong. This Victorian game, an upper-class amusement invented in England during the 1880s (while the French were busy revolutionizing advanced art), has spread across the world along with the rest of British culture. As a marker of colonialism, it seems harmless, which also makes it all the more sinister.
Much more contemporary is Erik Van Lieshout’s new 21-minute-long film, Sex Is Sentimental, on view in a custom-built theater at Maccarone at 630 Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan. The subject of the film is simple and casually formalist: making an artwork (this artwork) for his next show (this show). But he needs more than that -- he decides to make the film about his girlfriend, who, as he tells us in the soundtrack, used to be his assistant and now is away, soon to arrive, an event that he anxiously awaits.
Using a makeshift animation table and narrating the action as he goes, Van Lieshout combines drawings, collage, photographs, scrawled titles and live action into a cascade of funky imagery seemingly without style or technical guile. Artless and insouciant, the narrative nevertheless flows along with considerable verve and wit, propelled almost entirely by the force of the artist’s own charming personality.
"He’s adorable," said my girlfriend. Me, I hate him, but I have to admit that his film has a certain self-contained perfection. The way that Robert Ryman’s white paintings are formed by the material reality of the brush, the stroke, the paint and the surface, so is Sex Is Sentimental made out of the artist’s own social reality.
Large, graphic works on paper -- the very things being made during the film -- are $15,000.
Art critic Maureen Mullarkey took some heat in the Feb. 3 Daily News after it was revealed that she had donated $1,000 to last year’s campaign to ban gay marriage in California. . . . Veteran New York Times decorative-arts journalist Wendy Moonan is now sharing her beat with arts writer Eve Kahn. . . . Christie’s now posts its news on Twitter.
Jeff Koons received the 2009 gold medal from the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park on Feb. 1, 2009. Someone said he’s making more balloon works, with help from the balloon artist Buster Balloon. . . .Star artist Jim Hodges is moving from CRG to Gagosian Gallery, with a show scheduled there in the next few months. . . . Word is that Andres Serrano’s great "Shit" photographs, priced at $18,000 each when they debuted at Yvon Lambert Gallery in September, are still available. Completely available.
Speaking of which, dealer Emilio Steinberger has left Yvon Lambert to direct the New York branch of Haunch of Venison. . . . Artist Joe Fyfe, whose show of new works has just opened at Graham Gallery, has launched his own website at http://joefyfe.com. . . . New York photog Jill Krementz now authors her own "photo journal" on New York Social Diary
The Metropolitan Museum has printed its last press release -- all communications are now digital. How much money is saved? "If I told you I’d have to kill you," said one overly protective press officer. . . Eighties film guru Eric Mitchell is shopping around the spot drawings he made years ago for the New Yorker, hoping to get a show, says Art Newspaper gossip Adrian Dannatt.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.