A series of drawings on display through February 13th at the James Fuentes Gallery chronicles the struggles of The Artist, a wild, spiral-eyed, long-nosed character who resembles Joshua Abelow, his creator, reflected in a funhouse mirror. The Artist is always naked, and naked in a completely vulnerable way, his body articulated by clownishly rubbery contours and scribbled hairs radiating from his nipples and bunching in crude squiggles over his erect penis. A goofy invertebrate, The Artist wobbles and ripples all over the page and stumbles from one adventure to the next.
There are other artists present in these works—some seen and some unseen. The first of the unseen is Bruce Nauman, whose conception of art as a type of activity or behavior inspired Abelow to go meta.
“I’ve always produced a lot of work—and that has meant that I’ve produced a lot of work that I hated,” Abelow explained while guiding me past tableaus of The Artist misbehaving. “For every one painting that I liked, there were literally hundreds of paintings that I destroyed. Painting, for me, had become a dysfunctional activity, an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The character that I started developing in the drawings came out of that. I started thinking, 'Who is this crazy dysfunctional artist?' I wanted to explore that persona, that character.”
So who is this crazy dysfunctional artist? In one drawing, The Artist has abandoned his palette and brushes for a more promising activity, a self-administered blowjob. When not engaged in masturbation (a.k.a. the creative process), The Artist is pining for a woman. There's a great variety of them passing through these drawings. One with bobbed hair has a personality so solid and distinct that she seems based on a real-life model. Another is more idealized, ephemeral—the lines forming her face seem ready to fly apart as the artist's long nose pokes through their outer membrane, displacing one of her vague, dreamy eyes, pushing it a few inches too far down her cheek, while above the amorous couple, a moon and stars playfully wink and twinkle. In another untitled drawing, The Artist, curled into a fetal position, is desperately reaching toward a wraith-like woman who seems formed from his own cigarette smoke (a figment of his imagination?) while the devil pats him soothingly on the back.
These images bring to mind another unseen artist, Picasso—a master at pairing and contrasting an artist/avatar with his model/lover. Picasso’s Minotaur is described by Kirk Varnedoe as “ an all-too-physical creature of instinct, touch, and smell… agent and victim of disorder.” Virile and beastly, he threatens to devour the women he desires—women whose delicate loveliness seems violated by his mere proximity. As the age gap between Picasso and his lovers grew, his avatar evolved (devolved?) from Minotaur to monkey, from lover/destroyer to lover/corruptor—and yet the sense of power to violate his models’ feminine purity remained.
In Abelow’s work, The Artist’s uncouthness creates no sense of violation. On the contrary, the women—no matter how lovely—seem complicit. Some smile enticingly. Others are even more explicit, spinning and tickling the giddy Artist, licking him, letting him caress their breasts and fart in their ecstatic faces. Everything seems to be in the spirit of good, dirty, consequence-free fun—but there is a sort of existential crisis. As The Artist endlessly moves from one tryst to the next, he experiences novelty without illumination, an impotence in his pursuit of meaning.
Besides women, the object of Abelow’s affection (and sometime unrequited love) is painting. Drawings make up roughly one third of the show. The other two thirds are, at first glance, rather formalist hard-edge abstract paintings hung in series that show clever variations on the same configuration. But every now again a painting’s Mondrian-like rhythms are disrupted by superimposition of The Artist's profile or Abelow’s actual phone number. It's these pieces that reveal both Abelow’s love of and skepticism toward abstraction—almost as though when his faith in his paintings waivers, The Artist emerges to call the whole endeavor into question.
The only other artist actually seen in this work is Georgio de Chirico. In a drawing called "Figurative Painter," The Artist, with a crudely drawn brush gingerly perched in a clumsy elephantine hand, is painting de Chirico’s elegant profile onto his own erect penis. The piece shows Abelow's range, humor, and irreverence. Within a single, minimal drawing, the line quality degenerates from sophisticated contours to crude chicken scratches, falls from a pedestal into the gutter. The striking contrast between de Chirico's refined silhouette and the artist's absurd one undermines the image of the dignified painter.
“Why de Chirico?” I asked. “Because I always find his work so impenetrable,” Abelow said, sneaking a look at his “Self-Portrait with de Chirico,” which shows de Chirico open-mouthed and gagging on The Artist’s long nose. This simple mode of penetration seems unlikely to yield many insights—though, on second thought, maybe the intended insight is equally simple: pursue what you desire, though it makes you ridiculous.