Men & Cartoons

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The New York Sun

The girl in Alexi Worth’s “Beautiful Unfinishable Magazine” (all works 2006) crouches in a molded plastic Eames chair, flicking through an exotic travel section, her features partially obscured by the looming shadow of a man, perhaps the artist, before her. Together they make an odd couple. But that’s the norm for an entire show where, despite the title, not a single pair is depicted, side by side, “Arnolfini Marriage”–style. Like Holbein’s painting, though, mastery, trickery, and testing the limits of depiction are the order of the day.

Stylistically, the magazine reader has a foot in two epochs. Her left foot, nearest to the picture plane, is classically rendered, with academic finesse; the other is roughed out and distorted, altogether more modernist — although, equally, it is reminiscent of Renaissance Mannerism. (Jacopo Pontormo and Fiorentino Rosso join Phillip Pearlstein and William Bailey as progenitors of Mr. Worth’s touch and vision.)

This foot in two camps stands as a metaphor for Mr. Worth’s strange enterprise. He manages at once to relate to a contemporary sensibility, recalling the absurdist distortions of Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, and a prevailing fascination with the language of the comic book. But he is also genuinely old masterly: Despite rare actual citations of historic paintings, which when they do occur are unironic, his work is blessed with a genuine fascination for the oddities of seeing and depicting that belongs to an earlier, more innocent aesthetic order than ours.

As a critic and scholar, Mr. Worth has long been fascinated by the impact of photography on painting, lecturing, and writing, in particular, on Manet’s relationship with the camera. A large black circle dominates “Lenscap,” revealing a kind of amor vacuii; pinching fingertips confirm it to be the object of the title. In the right corner, deliciously rhyming with the cap and fingers, is a detail of Titian’s “Adam and Eve” from the Prado, the matriarch fingering the forbidden fruit. It is an elaborate allegory of painting’s fall from grace with the advent of photography, but it’s also a cutely observed contemporary museum moment.

Part of his endeavor as a practitioner seems to be to discover subjects that are beyond the purview of the lens — photorealistically probing areas that, actually, can only be painted. “Double Sip,” for instance, captures a goofy, delicate moment of first date connectivity, when each party, taking a gulp of wine, spies the other, distorted within the glass, doing the same thing. The result is a pretzel pile of multiply reflected, distorted, and overlapping fingers.Requiring time to decode, the variously concentric and overlapping circles of bowl, stem, and base form a Venn diagram of surreptitious intimacies.

Like the magazine girl’s feet, the couple’s fingers hover between recognizability and the kind of artifice that arises through fastidious attention to the real.In “Key Entering Lock,” the reflected digits in the mottled brass plate, while faint and distorted, are more naturalistic than the drastically cropped finger and thumb squeezing the key, on the viewer’s side. (It could be your fingers and key — one wishes the painting were hung lower to capitalize on the conceit.) The effect seems schematic, if not abstract, although on closer thought you have to acknowledge that that is how it should be depicted.

There are more trompe l’oeil antics in this show where the viewer is teased to identify the second half of the couple. “Head and Shoulders”looks at first like an early-20th-century personage: the shiny, wavy black hair to the left resembling a Léger woman, the weird vaguely phallic arrangement to its right a chess piece by Magritte. But then the egg-like shape registers as a male baldpate, face down on the identically colored woman’s shoulder.

Like Mr. Worth, Joe Coleman is an artist who collides the language of the comic book with Renaissance painting, although the result could not be more different.A painter, performance artist, musician, and actor, Mr. Coleman enjoys cult status in the underground comic book scene, while a painting of his was included in a contemporary section of the 2001 Hieronymous Bosch exhibition at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, alongside Ensor and Dalí.

His works, as catalogue essayist Steven Holmes argues, recall the northern renaissance tradition of paintings created for domestic devotion that highlighted martyrdom and suffering. As in comics and martyrologies alike, darkness pervades — quite literally in this exhibition, where the windows are blacked out, the lights focused exclusively on the painted panels.

Mr. Coleman’s sensibility is decidedly gothic. He paints portraits that surround the subject with vignettes from their life, other people who had an impact on their story (ancestors, adversaries), narrative episodes, and related heraldry and symbolic figures. There is a lot to look at and read in his pictures. With micrographic obsessiveness, he envelops images and any available gaps with stylized verbal legends and text. Subjects are chosen from the dark side of modern history and Americana. The titles expose a cast of bandits, murderers, or artists — like Mr. Coleman himself — who are drawn to such personalities: “A New York Pirate (Albert Hicks)” (1997), “Old Man Brown (John Brown)” (1995), “Public Enemy Number One (John Dillinger)” (1999), and paintings devoted to George Grosz, Henry Darger, and Harry Houdini. Other works explore personal narrative, filled with phobias, and probing inner recesses of the artist’s imagination.

In addition to 33 panels, each of which could demand hours from a dedicated viewer just to read, let alone savor, the artist has created a mini-installation of his “Odditorium,” a menacing, ghoulish collection — murder weapons, Manson memorabilia, examples of taxidermy, a vintage model of a gallows — that perhaps serve as still-life motifs in his painting, or simply as inspiration.

Despite its extreme nerdishness — heavy metal album cover meets tattoo parlor occultism — these verbally and iconographically dense images are strangely compelling, and somehow feel like a genuine throwback to the medieval imagination that fuels them.The labor intensity and kind of organizing mentality required to pack in these words and images, maintaining symmetry and urgency, sustaining dark, variously satirical and pathetic moods, can exude a sympathetic magic to many kinds of viewers — whether they are enticed, repelled, or even merely bemused by Mr. Coleman’s nightmare visions.

Worth until October 7 (724 Fifth 57th Street, 212-247-2111).

Coleman until October 4 (8 E. 76th St., between Madison and Fifth avenues, 212-737-2221).

The New York Sun

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