Studio in Play

 

A black hole all but fills a canvas, obscuring the world. From its rim, and from the pudgy fingers and thumb pushing it forward before sky-blue, you recognize it as a lens cap. A photograph is in the making. A landscape, perhaps? But what we see around the periphery--foliage, a fig leaf, an apple grasped by a tiny hand-- turns out to be not an ordinary landscape at all, but a glimpse of Eve succumbing to temptation. What is being photographed, in other words, is a painting. And so Worth's image turns out to be more complicated than its stop sign simplicity might lead you to expect. Painting a lens-eye view of a pre-photographic painting (Titian's Adam and Eve), Worth imagines his own lapsed state, a painter in the era of photography.

Alexi Worth is a terrific image-maker. His paintings stick in the mind. What you remember, however, is not quite what you get. For all the smoothness of surface, clarity of outlines and elegance of design, Worth doesn't make it easy to grasp what is going on. Much of the interest lies in the puzzling nature of what you are given to see. And that springs from a heightened and quirky sense of relationships—between things, between people, between the artist, his tradition, and himself.

Key in Lock, the smallest of these distilled images, stages a confrontation between a hand and its reflection. Is it surprising that a “real” hand should be cartoon-like while its reflection is real? The combination of what is known with what is seen, work imagined in the mind mixed with work done after the motif, is basic to representational painting. Worth plays along this centerline, where observation and thought meet and don't quite merge: the self (the painter's hand?) is “locked” into a division against itself. Surely the pun on lock is intended. Worth is a critic as well as an artist. The play of words in the mind feeds the play of the brush. He tempts us to think.

Think of the multiple reasons for Couples as the title of this exhibition. One pair of paintings couples an indeterminate flesh-colored blob and a black curtain: a man's bald head, so it turns out, juxtaposed with a woman's head of hair as he leans on her shoulder. In fact, the bald head is a telling attribute of Gerberman, the middle-aged protagonist of earlier pictures. Moving on from the narrative preoccupations of his previous exhibitions, Worth zeroes in on the matter of picturing itself. It is not the particular character but depiction itself that is put under pressure. There is something cheering (the ongoing wit) but also chilling (a sense of human entrapment) in the result.

In the relaive solitude of the studio, perhaps the most fundamental couple is the artist and the model. Several recent paintings highlight the intimacy of this basic studio situation. The artist appears as a shadow—graphic, insubstantial sometimes recognizable by a tell-tale forelock. The model looks out watchfully from a pool of dimness. Is she in his mind or is he in hers? There's an empirical comedy here: the artist is an obstacle—he's eclipsing his own view. But there's also a refreshed sense of the difficulties and pleasures of something we do every day, all our lives: look at other people.