Stark Nude in Winter

Paintings by Philip Pearlstein, gritty artisan of canvas, paint, and pluck

For a frigid day’s respite, take a knowing stroll down Miller’s grand concourse. Trust me, it will do your chilly spirit a heap of good to see some real art––the kind no one in this post-Danto––anything can be art––moment any longer does. Lucky for us, not everyone is engaged with obtuse theoretical constructs, video, and the Internet.

Somehow, Philip Pearlstein slipped by and he’s making art that looks human, is human, because it is done by hand. Oil painting is funny that way. It isn’t done on a computer—it’s sloppy and imperfect.

Pearlstein’s hands-on paintings aren’t “neat” either, but they are perfect vehicles for the subject matter he has explored since the 1960s––the depiction of real-life studio nudes, comatose and crowded into cropped claustrophobic canvases chock full of grandma’s collectible crap. The stuff, a rat-packer’s junk store horde— everything from lawn furniture to whirly-gigs—became ascendant compositional elements, more “alive” perhaps than the entranced models that have been relegated to the status of studio props.

But don’t let the paraphernalia distract you. The severe cropping and compositional crowding are things of real genius. It is a strategy that betrays itself, hosting a set of motives not the least of which is the design of a spatial architecture that situates the nudes in whirling spaces and dizzying patterns. Pearlstein’s models may be suffering from ennui, but the viewer is surely being set up for a spell of vertigo. In “Model on Lawn Chair with Tin Toy Locomotive,” a dozing model is set on a fellatio collision course with a rushing toy locomotive. Sure, the phallic symbolism may be a bit thin, but what really gets you going are all those collapsing diagonals skating across an upended canvas teetering on its edge.

Formally it’s a knockout, as is “Two Models with Hobby Horse and Carousel Ostrich” and “Model with Swan Decoy on Ladder.” Again, the cropping is severe––either no heads or poses that turn the head, averting the direct gaze. The peeping view is uncomfortably carnivorous—not a lovely send up of the sleeping odalisque motif.

Whether Pearlstein’s cramped canvases are simply catchy displays advertising his latest junket finds or if there is another, more secretive spirit afoot depends on your perspective.

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