A girl snaps her own photo in a dressing room, each mirror perfectly angled to show every surface at once. The back and sides are hanging out with the front; her eyes are multiplied to better see the new multitude of herself. She's peeled and spread out, projected onto the picture plane of her phone like those flattened globe maps that make the earth look like a bubbly 'M' scrawled on a middleschooler's notebook.
There's something almost folk-arty about it, isn't there? Depiction that doesn't care about vision or perception or reality, just finding the angle that offers the maximal amount of desired information about the subject. What folk art knows is that when this angle doesn't exist you can just make it up.
Dan Burkhart, We Are Dreamers ... II, 1989; © Photo: Fredrik Nilsen / Courtesy of The Box
I look good like this she thinks, twisting this way and that. Pretty as a picture.
E'wao Kagoshima's Libidoll (1985) is a painting and also a picture and also a doll. There is a girl there, or a symbol of a girl, but there is no subject, just a block of surface cut lengthwise to show its constituent parts. She's making the cut herself, but it's not suicide, quite the opposite: she's exchanged reality for visibility in order to present the greatest possible amount of surface to us. It's an oddly prescient form of self-preservation. Her kelly green bobbed hair and angular clothes are oddly fashionable. She also looks good.
When Baudelaire originally published his seminal essay from which the title of this show is taken, Modernity was an exciting concept with fluid borders, swollen with interpretation and exploration. As an instrument of cultural criticism, the word oscillated between subject and medium. But since public space has superseded physical space, the problems of how to act, how to look, and how to be, are all sort of balled together.
Sometimes the self is negatively defined by a set of concerns that is avoided with surgical precision. "For the sketch of manners" Baudelaire wrote in 1859, "the depiction of bourgeois life and the pageant of fashion, the technical means that is the most expeditious and the least costly will obviously be the best." Of course this brings to mind the defining auto-portraiture of our time—taken at arm's length, with an innocuous sounding "ie" tacked on at the end—and begs the question if painting even can still be modern.
Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, Caligula, 2010; Photo: Fredrik Nilsen / Courtesy of The Box
The paintings reflect modern life insomuch as they reject a modernity circumscribed by gender and history. The dates range from 1975 to to the present, plotting various points on a twentieth century map to nowhere. Style plays a greater role than the press notes would suggest, but reverie, made manifest, is nothing if not a pure distillation of style, untethered from reality and possibly from "content" as it relates to any collective moral compass. The painters here are "flaneurs of their imagination" and they are all similarly haunted by spectres of subjecthood—who is being seen, and how, and why. Juanita McNeely’s suffering bodies are twisted and turned in impossible angles; their surfaces are not self-regarding, only writhing in expression of an ineffable undertaking that in her time was only beginning to be framed as The Female Experience. The tangles of flesh in Jakub Julian Ziolkowski’s Caligula (2010), pulled and smashed like human taffy, are a fitting successor to Constantin Guy’s Parisian throngs; their sketchy frenzy seems quaint in comparison.
In an attempt to get his students to loosen up over the performance of writing, a former professor of mine once said "Culture is polyvalent! There’s no A, B, or C that you have to arrive at."
"Yes" I replied, "but there is an A, B, or C that we have to earn."
(Image on top: E'wao Kagoshima, Libidoll No. 1, 1985; © Photo: Fredrik Nilsen / Courtesy of The Box)