By James Kalm
For the sake of brevity let me dispense with old bromides about dogs and tricks. What I’ll simply say is that Phil Pearlstein is an American art treasure. Whether you appreciate his stubborn pursuit of “New Perceptual Realism” (how many of us can say we’re actual founders of historically recognized movements?) or your teeth are set on edge by his seemingly academic and traditional rendering of the naked (as opposed to nude) body, Pearlstein is a living example of what it means to be a vital and enduring presence on the New York art scene. You’ll never read about him being arrested for drunkenness, buying dope, indecent exposure, or making “art” with body fluids. While fashionable magazines and tabloids lionize misanthropic twenty-somethings, Pearlstein has practiced a daily concern with a more risky and ultimately more profound challenge, that of trying to make “good” paintings, and just as often as not, succeeding.
The basic story is that when Pearlstein began painting his rigorous form of realism in the early sixties, his compressed space and snapshot-like style of cropping disposed many critics to group him with other realists, both Pop and photo, who were breaking free of Abstract Expressionism’s death grip. Pearlstein’s commitment to sharply rendered form expressed mainly through the classic nude model, without reliance on mechanical aids, (a preoccupation of artists since the Renaissance, and beautifully depicted by Dürer in engravings of an artist peering through a frame with a wire grid—a kind of proto-camera—to measure a foreshortened nude). Cameras don’t lie, but that’s not to say that they tell the whole truth. Look closely at a Pearlstein painting and you begin to see glitches and anomalies in the foreshortening. Features like hands and feet seem to waxen and increase in size as well as detail and visual heft. In “Two Models with Large Whirligig” (2006) a reclining woman’s head appears visibly larger than her hip, which is closer to the viewer. Likewise, the propped-up ankle of the model on the painting’s left edge is disproportionately thick in comparison to her slender, foreshortened foot. Yet, due to the seamlessness of Pearlstein’s stylistic approach and attention to surface nuance and shadow, despite these illusionistic warps, everything seems to fit together pictorially. By shifting one’s viewpoint in front of the painting, these “distortions” slide in and out of proportion, not unlike the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (1533). At this point the question of abstraction crops up. Is this effect the consequence of a deliberate sequencing of abstract shapes, or a type of myopia, or the sly scheme of an intentionally unreliable observer?
A requirement of setting a good example is the wisdom to follow great examples. As an expert in and early champion of the stylistically peripatetic Francis Picabia, Pearlstein appreciates the importance of remaining open to new challenges and social shifts, and of avoiding formulaic cul-de-sacs. Several recent pictures depict models whose bodies are lit by a neon Mickey Mouse, a visual double entendre and wicked pun. In “Two Models, Neon Mickey Mouse, African Chair and Ladder” (2006), the synthetic glow and striated shadows across the models’ skin tones cast by the neon insinuate a crass amusement park/shopping mall glare into the Pearlstein’s familiar warm and natural-looking world of wood furniture, faded Indian carpets, and weather-worn antique toys. Symbolically, the support struts of the neon sign even appear to impale the model on the ladder, a sort of brash modernist crucifixion.
If art is a reflection of humanity, then Pearlstein has accomplished his mission not only by portraying his subjects as contemporary humans, casually and unapologetically naked, but by literally painting the reflections and shadows of the accoutrements of modern life on their skin. With these new works, the modernist dictum “what you see is what you see” is no longer an assured declarative statement. Pearlstein transforms it into a philosophical question with implications that challenge not merely our vision, but our perception as well.