Angst & Beauty

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The New York Sun

Among the high-minded modernists who defined what are still the underlying values of the art world, illustration and narrative were taboos. So when in the postmodern 1980s they were redeployed, this had deliberately subversive intent. Twenty years later you’d think the novelty would have worn off. Yet even in the work of recently emerged artists, storytelling, inherited iconography, and a nostalgic mix of modes of representation can imbue art with a sense of outsiderness. However skillful and accomplished they are, such artists seem amateur if their narrative and symbolism seem to arise from personal necessity.

This comes across in current solo shows by two remarkable women, Elizabeth Huey’s second at Feigen Contemporary and Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s debut at James Cohan. These artists occupy a similar emotional terrain in the way their images combine adolescent angst and a fractured sense of the bucolic. Another connection between them is the purposively uneasy mix of control and vulnerability in their handling of their respective mediums.

Ms. Taylor, fresh out of Columbia’s graduate program, is best known for her ingenious creations in marquetry: She has seven works in wood inlay along with a painting on wood and four large drawings in graphite filling Mr. Cohan’s spacious galleries. Marquetry has a mixed history that is well suited to her task. A princely luxury in medieval and Renaissance times, it is, by now, more likely to be found in lower middle-class homes of the kind inhabited by Ms. Taylor’s protagonists.

Her imagery deals with small-town teenage antics — nothing too criminal, but scenes, nonetheless, imbued with distraction, alienation, and imaginative poverty. Couples lounge nonchalantly, or plot mischief, in dreary, even polluted landscapes or tacky interiors. “Jumbo’s” (all 2006) shows a couple of young women in a bar. One, mini-skirted and seated at a banquet, does something furtive under the table while her friend, in tight red jeans and bare midriff, dances, is self-absorbed, and perhaps stoned. There is a reclining figure in a picture within the picture on the wood-paneled wall behind them. Ms. Taylor’s fluency in wood is quite breathtaking: the way the grain echoes stretched denim; the way different shades denote creases in clothing and body contours, the ability she has in such unwieldy material to explore nuances of facial expression. Yet, inevitably, the medium retains its inherent awkwardness, thereby conveying a tension that finds its emotional equivalence in the subject matter.

Awkwardness is of the essence in “Swimming Pool,” a suburban adolescent torture scene that recalls early Eric Fischl. A frowning boy clutching a skateboard converses uneasily with a voluptuous, bikinied young woman seen from the rear, both of them under the indignant gaze of a reclining, martini-sipping older woman on a deckchair. The viewer can construct any number of scenarios from this louche scenario, with its low-octane eroticism. It has the transitional quality of a cinema still, or comic book frame: There is a mystery that would dissolve rapidly with the supply of a caption.

The marquetry masterpiece here is “Flamingo,” an action-packed but still uncodeable scene in which a young woman in boots and a frilly skirt clambers on top of an automobile while an anxious girl pleads with her to come down. A young man with his back to us seems more concerned with the pleader than the climber, while inside a nearby house another man, in 17th-century garb, spies on the scene. Cinematically this feels like David Lynch territory.You get the drama immediately, but the tension lingers and deepens as you interpret the work’s rich formal details and emotional subplots.

Ms. Taylor, anxious perhaps at being pigeonholed the wood woman, includes a painting and drawings on quirky themes of people dressed in Stone Age style doing odd things in forests. But here the awkwardness of handling seems merely the result of limited skill, and the wacky iconography, indebted to artists like Matthew Barney and Marcel Dzama, is contrived.

Ms. Huey’s handling of paint, by contrast, has the kind of oxymoronically fluent awkwardness of Ms. Taylor’s marquetry. The variety of touch in her work signifies awareness of historical precedents, but by the same token prevents seamless pictorial unity. It is almost as if she is patching together different kinds of painterliness just as she is bringing together disparate figures, scales and scenarios. But she doesn’t play language games as Sigmar Polke or David Salle do through an abrasive collision of techniques. There is more the naïveté of an outsider artist — Henry Darger looms large as an exemplar — working through patchwork to achieve a personally convincing whole.

Such fracturing suits her subject matter, which is 19th-century psychiatry. The artist’s fascination with the reforms and experiments of Thomas Story Kirkbridge and his ally, Dorothea Dix, has led her to study many of the state hospitals they initiated in the belief that the mentally ill deserved humane treatment in idyllic architectural settings. Ms. Huey has said her involvement with this subject is informed by her treatment at the hands of the controversial Straight Inc. drug rehabilitation program in her youth.

“The Superintendent” (2006), a 6-by-8-foot painted panel, places various isolated figures in period costume in a landscape of grandly ominious institutional buildings.The figures vary in the degree to which they are obviously lifted from historic illustrations, like the boy constrained on his chair with some kind of box contraption over his head, or attempt relative naturalism, like the romantic couple strolling on the grass. The nostalgia and incongruity recall Max Ernst’s collage novels, but Ms. Huey resists absurdity for its own sake, or as a means to evoke the marvelous; instead, the painting seems anxious to resolve its own nuttiness.

There is a tension between fulsomeness and feebleness in the way Ms. Huey marshals her means. Her rendering of architecture is precise but flattened like American primitive painting, for instance, and her brooding skies have the slick impasto that recalls mid-20th-century salon abstraction, to seem at once expressive and expedient.

Taylor until September 30 (533 W.26th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-714-9500);

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