Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ray Caesar - A Gentle Kind of Cruelty


Ray Caesar’s new show for Jonathan Levine, A Gentle Kind of Cruelty, is as unnerving and enchanting as fans of Caesar’s work expect.  His unique female figures, with their unsettling combination of pale childlike innocence and stern, world-weary gazes are as alluring and as provocative as ever.  Though the show definitely presents a singular unified experience, the work on display lends itself to a division into two aesthetic themes.

On one hand there are pieces that have taken on elements of what the press release calls a “more painterly approach”.  There are more muted pallets and softer edges to the figures.  Some of the pieces are treated with a layer of varnish that crackles at the surface allowing for the illusion of age and history and adding a wonderful textural element to the experience.  Perhaps the most striking example of these new methods is Ancient Memory, a warm, gently lit portrait that could almost have been painted by an old Dutch master.  Except, of course, that it couldn’t be. This nimble dance involving allusions to the past, the illusion of antiquity, novel subject matter and fresh technology is one of the main things that brings a unique vibrancy and engagement to Caesar's work.

Ancient Memory
In contrast, several of the pieces embrace and exaggerate the gloss and shine of the modern printing process, using highly stylized color pallets and maddeningly fine detail.  Several of these pieces contain a lurid, hyper-gloss liquid lacquer from which organic forms emerge as if from the aether. This alien fluid also appeared in a group show piece from last year, Returns of the Day.  In Gentle Kind Of Cruelty, the image takes on several different forms.   In Impromptu the impossibly shimmering piano appear unstable.   It’s spindly legs fluid and asymmetrical, defying basic physics.  It is as if the strange glossy fluid of which the furniture is constructed has not yet fully set or cured, or perhaps something has caused it to be destabilized, it’s atomic structure regressing from a solid state to something looser and more chaotic. 

In another piece, Kingdom, this use of liquid imagery is more obvious and more whimsical.  Here we see another porcelain-pale female figure (though to my eyes she appears a year or two more mature than the standard Caesar figure).  She lazily conjures a small city from a liquid floor so smooth it is mirror polished.  Is this perhaps a subtle nod to the medium in which these work is created?  Is this appearance of the hyper-gloss liquid god-stuff and it’s destabilizing effect on the reality of the scene similar in a way to the early impressionists’ employment of visible brush strokes in their paintings?
Unlike the paintings that Caser’s work allude to, these pieces are not made of oil or pigment of any kind.  True there is the ink and canvas of the print hanging that hangs in the gallery, but these materials were not present at the work’s inception.  The work of art was born of code, 1s and 0s, and at the visible level an astronomical number of colored pixels.  Much like the figure in Kingdom, the artist conjurers the image from a seemingly unknowable and intangible substance.  This peculiar liquid lacquer, this impossibly glossy god-stuff, then can be viewed as an allusion to the peculiar nature of the creative process in the digital age.
In both the hyper-modernized imagery of the lacquer pieces and the allusions to antiquity in the more painterly pieces one can see another layer of narrative being added to the Caesar’s already narratively rich work.  In different way each of these experimentations in form and content opens a dialogue not only with the medium of the work but also with the post-modern, yet strangely ahistorical moment in which we find ourselves.

A Gentle Kind of Cruelty closes February 19th.

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