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Plastic-Covered Passion


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at Feigen, through October 9

My first reaction to most of James Rosenquist's paintings is immediate and intense visual pleasure. One of the founding Pop artists, he fragments images drawn primarily from mass media, paints them with a sensuousness somehow more resonant than that of an appealing advertisement, and juxtaposes the fragments, often incongruously. Particularly in his early work, the result is imagery far more supple and gentle than the actual objects or images depicted. The huge fighter plane in his giant multipanel painting F-111 (1965) is rendered in mostly gentle grays; in size and shape it may be ominous, but it's painted with an almost inviting tenderness.

I was therefore quite surprised by his new paintings of gift-wrapped dolls, a series now numbering 32, 8 of which are currently on view at Feigen. Painted in 1992 and 1993, each is a 60-by-60-inch oil on canvas of a doll's head covered with crumpled plastic wrapping, which is folded and creased every which way and frequently reflects a brightly colored light, sometimes obscuring part or all of the doll. The dolls' eyes, which stare directly out at the viewer, combined with the irregular folds in the plastic and the garishness of the reflected colors seemed to push me away. If many earlier Rosenquists immerse the viewer in the sensuality of their forms, these repelled. After spending some time with them, looking at each carefully and then returning now and again, it became clear that they offer an experience as rewarding and as profound as Rosenquist's earlier work--but of a very different kind.

Gift Wrapped Doll #16 shows a moonlike face with the plastic arranged in mostly vertical folds and reflecting mostly red and yellow, but with a wider range of colors at the edges. The doll's right eye is round and wide open; presumably the left is too, but it's partly obscured by the dense red light reflected off the plastic. Her hair is apparently blond, but the plastic over her hair often reflects yellow or brown, making it hard to distinguish the reflected light from the doll's hair. The folds in the plastic are rendered with a strong illusion of depth: one has the double sense of looking at a three-dimensional surface and of peering behind it at the doll.

In Gift Wrapped Doll #14 a particularly thick fold of plastic crosses the doll's face almost horizontally and a variety of colors--red, purple, green, blue--appear to be coming not only from its surface but from inside it. We see a splotch of blond hair--and right below it the rest of the hair is covered in thick red. One eye is clearly visible, the other not at all. At first glance, as with #16, the patterns made by the plastic seem chaotic; and even on closer inspection they have none of the geometrical order of Rosenquist's earlier combinations of images.

The key to these works can be found in the strange, three-dimensional colors of the wrapping and in the relationship of those patterns to the doll heads. The eyes peer out with all the mysterious, almost life- like presence that these substitute beings--so real to the children who play with them--can have. At the same time they're imprisoned in an almost indecipherable labyrinth of carnival-like colors and plastic-wrapped space.

Rosenquist himself has suggested one meaning for the relationship between wrapping and dolls in an interview: "I began to think of people falling in love, like a child does with a doll and then yet, people having to make a business relationship with love because of AIDS. This seems to be the complete antithesis to passion. . . . I worried about my little daughter, Lily. I wondered what kind of love life she would have in the future because of this terrible scourge." So on one level these dolls wrapped in plastic and obscured from our view by reflections might stand for our current physical alienation from one another--I was reminded of a bad joke of a few years ago about modern orgies involving not only many naked bodies but lots of Saran Wrap. In Gift Wrapped Doll #27 the gift wrap is mostly solid red, with streaks of white and yellow, and covers the doll head very tightly; it seems to be largely shaped to the contours of the face. While in most of the others the wrap seems partly separate from the doll, with some of the doll's colors visible through the reflections, here doll and wrapping seem blended into one unit; only the eyes pierce through the surface.

In statements made throughout his career Rosenquist has suggested that he sees nature as fundamentally disordered--"an accidental arrangement"--and that it is the artist's task to create order. And for much of his career Rosenquist has collaged diverse elements in his paintings and combined them in geometrical patterns. A superb example of this work is also on view at Feigen, though not as part of this exhibit. In the 1985 Algae and Stars the left half is filled with a solid sensual green in front of which are two flowering branches; a large green bird perches on one. To the right is a starry night sky. Though the space of this painting is totally synthetic, when read left to right it has a hint of landscape: algae as ground, and bird perched right at the point where algae gives way to sky. In front of this "scene" are three groups of thin, sliverlike bands, running almost parallel to each other like the teeth of a comb, within whose narrow widths are parts of women's faces. The colors throughout are soft, inviting, even alluring; but while nature is seen whole, the human presence has been split up into several shards.

Part of this work's beauty is the way these fragments intrude on the composition. Except for some that appear behind the bird's tail, these slivers are painted as if they were in front of the picture. Rosenquist's precise division of the canvas into "algae," "stars," and "faces" and the way each sliver apparently sits at a precisely defined depth--some of the bands appear to pass under or behind others--create the sense of an aesthetic organization very different from anything in nature.

The Gift Wrapped Dolls are not so well ordered. Their riotous displays of color, like the dolls' staring eyes, confront the viewer. They're full of visual contradictions: between the colors of the dolls and the colors reflected by the plastic, between the canvas as an abstract colored design and as a "photographic" image of an object. Yet through it all the doll faces suggest, despite their cliched shapes and vacant stares, a genuine human presence. And if the dolls suggest the human, it seems not unreasonable to see in the swirl of colors and shapes that surround them a metaphor not merely for AIDS but for every aspect of society that enshrouds the individual--for the powerful near-chaos that engulfs us all.

At the same time, these color arrangements are not at all random. Looked at for a while, they begin to seem carefully composed studies in perceptual contradiction--a more organic version, perhaps, of the intersecting slivers of such paintings as Algae and Stars. In fact, Rosenquist purchased all the dolls himself, arranged the gift wrap on each, and then took an average of 100 photographs of each doll before obtaining one on which he could base a painting. The elaborate relief and color patterns thus are not accidents of nature but a record of the artist's hand--one fulfillment of his wish, expressed in 1964, to find "a brutality that hasn't been assimilated by nature." Indeed, many qualities of mass culture are replicated in these pictures: brutal, aggressive, they seem at first glance to deny the viewer any imaginative entry; the plastic envelops the doll persona, denying her any autonomy; the almost cacophonous colors seem neither well ordered nor random, a bundle of contradictions.

Even after I grew to appreciate them, these doll pictures left me with divided, not wholly positive feelings--all of which seems appropriate to the work. Gift Wrapped Doll #26 looks a bit like a deformed devil-child from an old monster movie; the eyes are dark, hollow voids amid the thick bright red of the plastic, whose folds seem to make the head slightly angular. To the right of the left eye there seems to be a third eye, but elongated and running vertically. Around the top of the head is a thick black, adding to the feeling that this is an apparition. Gift Wrapped Doll #22 is in a way even bleaker: virtually none of the doll is visible beneath the thick red and blue streaks of the plastic, and if this were not part of this series, the painting would be read as completely abstract. Yet as I looked at it, it set my senses and mind aspin, thinking about order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, entrapment and freedom--dualities that each of these paintings, in differing degrees, embodies.

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