Realism, figurative and narrative art are supposed to be passe, dated, over the hill if not beyond the pale. At least, that's what we've been hearing for, well, quite a while now, and most of the artists shown in self-consciously ultra-cool places like Chelsea really do seem to avoid those approaches. Yet, such prejudices have more to do with narrow fashion than with any real substance. Creativity, like love, is blind in that sense, as we see in the magic realism of Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar.
An architectural and artistic partnership, Behar and Marquardt are from Miami (where they are hot) and are recipients of museum shows and major public commissions. Actually they are from Argentina, having moved to Miami in 1985, and their vision is really very Argentine; even photographs of them suggests an Argentine tango couple. Miami is a cool and trendy art town, but also very Latin American, and these artists are in synch with the Argentine version of that sensibility. It's been years since I've been to Argentina, but their work brought it all back home.
Imagine Nebraska or Illinois inhabited by rather formal Latinos and Italians as well as some suspicious Germans. Imagine fiery passion and icy reserve in a flat, spacious landscape with lots of right angles, baroque flourishes and Catholic miracles. This is how I remember Argentina, and this show did nothing to dispel those impressions. Annunciation in the Pampas is an oil painting, a cutaway view of a little casa on the prairie. A matronly senora in a straight chair solemnly guards the front door as a train zips up the horizon. Inside, a senorita exchanges meaningful glances with an angel holding a suitcase at the window. On a calendar by the bed, the late, great tango singer Carlos Gardel looks rakish. The Biblical Annunciation was archangel Gabriel's way of telling Mary to expect a surprise named Jesus, but no immaculate conception is implied here. Yet the details may not matter; tone and mood are everything.
More cutaway views appear in Sunday Morning, in which a young couple lolls around in bed in a modernist hotel room. The pretty blonde faces a 1930s radio on an end table. Her guy looks at her hopefully, but she only has eyes -- or ears -- for the radio. And once again there is that enticing voyeuristic sensation of seeing into a private place, into private lives, as if with X-ray vision.
But Tango is a city scene where a formal couple dances in a street, which is all but deserted except for a little girl or tiny woman sitting by a radio in a doorway. Here the dancers loom large over their surroundings, looking monumental, almost architectural. This is ordinarily the kiss of death for painters -- Hitler flunked art school for being too architectonic -- but here it works to impart a droll surreality and affirm the tango's larger-than-life-aura, reminding us that memories and dreams are subjective. Life may be ephemeral but the tango is forever.
New York artist Edward Schmidt is also a painter of figures, but his are neo-classical nymphs, maidens and others draped in decorous folds of cloth as if lounging in the Arcadian woods, all of which raises the question: Is he just a reactionary academic artist or is there something else going on here? Maybe so, is the most immediate answer -- it all depends. For instance, Man and Woman With Green Drapery hints at some sort of subsurface intrigue.
The woman, a blonde, has that sort of translucent, gelatinous pink skin seen in some Southern renaissance paintings as well as in the work of renaissance-influenced contemporary artists such as Odd Nerdrum, the Norwegian painter of apocalyptic Icelandic landscapes. No problem -- some people really do have skin that looks like shrimp aspic -- and the green cloth that the male figure is either putting on or taking off of her is convincing in its softness and heft. Yet, somehow the whole scene bristles with psychic intrigue, which I later learned might be because the model for the "male" figure was actually a tall, muscular woman. Hey, whatever works. Schmidt is an interesting artist on those occasions when his paintings manifest mystery and paradox to such good effect.
- It takes two: The droll surreality of Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar's Tango helps reminds us that memories and dreams are subjective.