Art Review — Ellen Lanyon & Philip Pearlstein: Objects/Objectivity by Diane Thodos

Ellen Lanyon & Philip Pearlstein: Objects/Objectivity
Valerie Carberry Gallery
September 16 – November 5, 2011

Ellen Lanyon and Philip Pearlstein are artist friends who share outings to collect antiques, flea market finds, and vintage toys – the theme on which exhibition title Objects/Objectivity is based. The articles they find inhabit distinctly different worlds in their art. While Lanyon has always expressed an overt emotional attachment to the items that populate her fantasy-based imagery, Pearlstein renders his antiques and toys with a harsh objectivity that can sometimes exude unsettling feelings lurking behind their attempt to mimic life.

Both Lanyon and Pearlstein had technical drawing training early in their careers, which helps to explain a common interest in mechanical objects. Pearlstein’s first job as a machinery draughtsman influenced the stark “objectifying” realism he brought to his nude figures. Mechanical renderings operate somewhat differently in Lanyon’s work, becoming props that mix up and recombined with other objects as though performing on some subconscious theatrical stage.

Lanyon’s work bears some similarity to the art of Seymour Rosofsky and is rooted in the surreal, and fantastic images of the Chicago-based Monster Roster art group of the 1950’s. Lanyon clusters her objects into skewed interiors where one cannot tell exactly where the tiled floor meets the striped wallpaper. All manner of porcelain creatures, gadgets, cards, and items of nostalgia clutter these spaces with a whimsical disregard for logic. They often are energized with a strange, sometimes lugubrious, inner life. The animal presences in her paintings are particularly noticeable and seem to act like the ringmasters at the circuses being performed around them. In one painting a porcelain fish in a red velvet suit glowers at the viewer with its large glassy eye. In another a monkey uses a snake to squirt tea into a cup. Birds peep through windows and spring out of clocks. Animal effigies appear to be the silent guardians of a secret world. Space becomes unstable, topsy-turvy, and surprising. Bright colors burst through the surface in jazzy patterns while other areas are rendered in ghostly outlines. The aura of nostalgia embedded in her objects do not make them “sweet.” They exist in a world that teeters between irrational whimsy and the grotesque. There is a darkness that exists within the sentiment she feels for her objects, which makes them both tragic and imaginative. Like Seymour Rosofsky Lanyon’s scenarios are often haunted by a sense of bittersweet loss that brings both a personal and expressive life to her arrangements.

Ellen Lanyon
Fisch, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

By contrast Philip Pearlstein is well known for his stark objectivity painting the nude. He is famous for posing his naked figures under harsh, glaring lights that emphasize their “objectness.” Their static and somnambulistic expressions prevent the sparking of erotic desire, as does the rendering of flesh with veins, sinew and hair in all its particularity. The introduction of objects present new formal challenges to these figural arrangements. In this exhibit items like duck decoys, puppets, and other toys are rendered in the same harsh and unsentimental light as the nudes. Like Lanyon, the animal effigies in Pearlstein’s paintings act as a kind of psychological lynchpin, looking at us with open eyes where the nude’s gaze does not. Yet humans and objects co-habit a common space with uneasy awkwardness. A “Gulliver” sized foot is lodged on a “Lilliputian” sized model of the White House (a bird house in actuality). Two nudes are surrounded by a jumble of duck decoys that have truly “wooden” expressions. An uncanny deadness emanates from the leering expression of a Mickey Mouse doll on a unicycle, similar to the opaque expression of a wooden rabbit marionette placed between two nudes in a different painting. In another arrangement an old copper butcher’s sign is placed in front of a nude woman, seeming to trap her – compositionally – into a corner. The silhouettes of a knife, cleaver, and saw overlay her body, making her flesh seem all the more delicate and vulnerable. In another painting a model airplane on a vertical flying pole pushes to the front of the picture plane, crowding the foreground and directing attention away from two nudes that are seated below and behind it. The toy plane presents a kind of visual dissonance – a compositional mechanical “noise”- that contrasts with the human presence. Unlike Lanyon’s paintings there is no whimsy, sentiment, or nostalgia embedded in Pearlstein’s items though there are strange juxtapositions that arise between the nudes and objects, sometimes hinting at a surreal otherworldliness. In each case the object’s inner deadness makes the nudes come to life by sheer contrast. His inert animal effigies attempt to mimic life, but their harsh realism renders this mimesis as a strange phenomenon. There is something a bit frightening about the lifelessness in many of these objects that ends up animating Pearlstein’s otherwise pallid figures. The inertness of his articles reinvigorates the sense of human presence in his paintings, and emphasizes the existential fact of their aliveness by contrast.

Though both Lanyon and Pearlstein have interests in nostalgic objects their paintings result in quite different outcomes. For Lanyon, magic can upset the rules of reality and imagination can twist space and memory. In Pearlstein’s work, realist empiricism reveals a disconnection between the human aliveness and unliving matter – rehumanizing the human presence as a result. Both artists have maintained humanizing artistic traditions – whether through Surrealism or Realism – which stands in distinct contrast to the postmodern spectacles and conceptual ideologies of the current art world. This certainly goes along way in explaining the integrity of their artistic survival in these all too dehumanizing times.

Philip Pearlstein
Two Nudes and four Duck Decoys, 1994, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

Ellen Lanyon
Hanafuda, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches

Top image:
Philip Pearlstein
Mickey Mouse, White House as Bird House, Male and Female Models, 2001, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a 2002 recipiant of a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant. She had a 2009 retrospective at the National Hellenic Museum in 2009 and is represented by The Kouros Gallery in New York City where she exhibited in 2011. The Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago, the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, and the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City also represent her.