An Intimate Narrative

Peter Cain exhibition documents the late painter’s fidelity to photographic truth

Matthew Marks is presenting its third posthumous exhibition of works by Peter Cain. A young artist of the generation that reintroduced subjective imagery in the 1990s, he is best known for a series of large-scale, mutated automobile paintings. Tapping a realist vein opened by James Rosenquist, Cain riffs on the work of Gerhard Richter and Chuck Close, painting the recognizable through the altering lens of photography.

At the time Cain was working, you couldn’t just do a landscape, still life or figure—it was too hokey. But, you could paint the photograph of something, which acknowledged the effect of photography on visual thinking; it also created an emotional remove from the subject matter. That coolness had been an imperative for New York-generated artwork since Warhol and Lichtenstein.

Seven working drawings, two photographs and three paintings make up the exhibition. Most of the drawings are intermediate-step blow-ups between the Instamatic source photographs and the 5x 7 oils. Two of the drawings look like art school exercises where the idea of “finish” translates into filling in the values without showing any pencil lines; in other words, drawn to a yawn-inducing blandness.

The three “Sean” paintings however, are something else. Close-up images of a 20-something fellow with a blond soul patch and queue is seen in a stolen glance, as though the viewer is laying on a towel in the sand next to him. You don’t even get a profile as the huge head rises up and out of the frame of the image, just big ear and neck. Cain subverts his primary photographic material, simplifying his image in same way Alex Katz does. The softened details become imperative, suggest intimacy and imply a narrative.

I don’t know if Peter Cain was gay or not, but I can recognize a visual crush when I see one. Cain loved the back of Sean’s neck, the flesh of his shoulder, the blonde chin hair and—oh!—that cascade of freckles! Cain tries to get some distance by using a signature gesture—the upending of the image by turning it sideways or upside down, emphasizing the abstraction of the image. This strategy while highly successful in his earlier surreal car paintings, in this case, comes across as a feigned attempt at coding. Honey, I can flip that boy myself, thank you very much!

This body of figurative work, generated in 1996 shortly before the artist died of a cerebral hemorrhage, is the estate gallery’s bid to connect him to art stars Elizabeth Peyton, John Currin, and Linda Yukasavage, who were about the same age as Cain. Like them, Cain showed a similar pubescent energy and focus. However, the dryness of his paint handling and his almost strict adherence to a photographic base set him fundamentally apart from the others who are just as tightly pegged to images altered by cartoon exaggeration and idiosyncratic paint handling.

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