Contributed by Margaret McCann / In Sasha Gordon’s “Hands Of Others” at Jeffrey Deitch and Maud Madsen’s “Daisy Chain” at Marianne Boesky, fleshy females are pressed on the picture planes as if between corporeality and social stress. All are self-portraits, but the figures read more as types performing hidden allegories. Like many painters today, and the Symbolists more than a century ago, they each use invented narratives that provide opportunities to put figurative ambitions to work and play. Vivid technical skill is combined with irony and animation’s simplified language to ease the pressures of adulting portrayed.
In the work of both painters, frustration or melancholy gives way to a subtle, psychological humor that pits the obvious or grotesque against sensitive micro-expression. In Gordon’s Pinky Promise, which seems to reference the topless Fontainebleau School portrait of the d’Estrées sisters (an image Nicole Eisenman also explored early in her career), two luminous, grinning clones, green skinned and starry-eyed, pledge mutual devotion. Underlining their commitment are comically intertwined nipples that might have hopped out of a Peter Saul painting. The figures flash the viewer in cavalier fearlessness that doesn’t rise above false confidence. The right one smiles frozenly, the left one vacantly, her uplifted eyebrows holding an inane openness. Both are oblivious to the Dante-esque dark wood surround. Uneasy humor makes light of vulnerable revelation. In Groundless, Madsen also depicts awkwardness. Viewed from below, a mildly daring step onto a playset’s swing becomes vertiginous and acrophobic. The sky is as endless as that of a baroque ceiling painting, her lonesome face far away. A somewhat acidic contest of complementary colors suggests doubt despite the gorgeous blue.
The eager-to-please presentation of a selfie – which any pubescent girl must today master to debut on social media – is implicated, and concomitant body-image angst. Gordon’s and Madsen’s females could be later chapters in the story of Edvard Munch’s Puberty, whose girl is too young to grapple with the wild-woman archetype. Her body, part shy and angular, part curving into womanhood, sits on the edge of a bed and at the threshold of adolescence. An unruly, convex shadow flows from her like a giant tadpole, intimating the adult secrets creeping up on her. In Gordon’s Almost a Very Rare Thing, anxiety comes to the surface. Her double sits on a boat’s edge, tipped toward us in an ample pose reminiscent of Lucien Freud’s Back View. We can see her bald spot as she hands a neurotic bouquet of plucked hair to her twin, similarly clad in ill-fitting underwear, who accepts it with an almost-brave face. While Freud relished frank and unflattering realism, Gordon soothes inner qualms with supple modeling that conveys specific touch, as in the work of Artemisia Gentileschi. Smooth, delicate rendering of ungainly form, however – abundant skinfolds or a plumber’s crack – shares the friendly weirdness of Salvador Dali. The child-sized rowboat awkwardly floats over flowered dark water that may aspire to Monet’s lily pond, or a lotus-like overcoming of difficulties.
Madsen’s Toe Dipper more elliptically tracks Puberty’s contrasts of innocent and knowing, small and large. A narrow tonal range draws the viewer in to discern the mountainously balanced figure on a precarious ladder. The absurd and anxious situation is quieted by an elegant compositional arabesque, movement flowing from head and shoulders along the treetops and her silhouette through buttocks, knees, and tentative toes, stopping at a yellow ball in the front of the empty kiddy pool. Pretending to gingerly test the water, she struggles to fit both back into childhood and the painting’s tight rectangle. We encounter her covert sidelong glimpse, resembling that of the standing figure in Georges de La Tour’s The Card Sharp with the Ace of Diamonds. But rather than hiding motives, Madsen’s self seems to gauge what we might think of how she’s doing, the way we look at mirrors to discern how others see us. As much onlooker as protagonist, Madsen is subject and object of her own gaze. The viewer is placed in a position of caring responsibility, a bit embarrassed at the performance yet not wanting to discourage.
How reflections are instead used to directly engage ourselves appears in Gordon’s small heads, where spatial dynamics meld the intimate and the strange. Hands hold beaded curtains apart in Aquarius. Muted warm and cool tones reverberate peacefully across her skin, suggesting a glowing crystal ball. Although her large face is in ours, it recedes against the background’s saturated yellow-orange pushing her toward answers. Ferment lets the sun shine vastly through her backlit visage. Against the happy blue flatness, Gordon deftly describes facial features with tiny brushes. Looking closely as though at a magnified make-up mirror, we can marvel at how minimal, well-placed lines can turn a form and spark illusion. Madsen’s Toe Dipper is likewise backlit, softening the image’s effrontery. As the hair on her head transmogrifies from flat shadows into vicissitudes of light in space, her identity shrinks into impersonal atmospherics. Another misfit crammed into the borders of Caked, face turned away, scoops mud or sand spreading out in ridges, if not endless dunes – another Sisyphus-ian exercise in futility. Echoing Lisa Yuskavage’s shorthand, particulars of light on hair transmit sympathy. Meaninglessness is also mollified by lively, synthetic color.
Plasticity looms large in each painter’s work, recalling Mannerism, a movement mainly inspired by the Sistine ceiling, where Michelangelo exaggerated human physique in cropped pictorial space to express the powerful form of his sculpture. Unlike Gordon’s more buoyant figures, Madsen’s correspond to gravity. Mosquito Bites expresses a gently suffering body. The soft brooding of her slumbering foreshortened self is punctuated with daintily ruptured skin lesions, a band-aid partly lifted from scratching, and the longing of a carved heart over her head. Like weak bookends, too-slim views of a garden at the edges fail to brighten the mood. Despite the image’s cool blueness one can imagine summer heat, a cognitive dissonance that inspires curiosity and thwarts sentimentality.
In My Friend Will Be Me Gordon combines different kinds of light and displays a dramatic realism. Mesmerizing detail of painted bricks, wooden floor, marble tabletop, and tools of the trade – apron, solvent container, jar of brushes, paint tubes and a spectrum of color blobs and swashes – are given more consideration than the figure’s individuality. Her tonally-amplified double behaves like a John Currin bimbo who can’t help but expose herself, even though Gordon casts her in the serious role of painter. The innocuous painting she’s working on beams with faux pride. Submerged in richly dark blues and purples that jar against the even studio light, her sparkling but coprophagous grin laughs at and with us. Yet her maker’s true devotion is revealed in the attentive, perfect gesture of her painting hand.
In powerful images about degrees of powerlessness, each painter pokes fun at her selves without victimhood, and vaunts art’s ability to beautify the uncomfortable. Far from being the measure of all things, these imperfect bodies and perplexed minds trace a heroine’s earnest journey from self-estrangement toward actualization, each painting a station along a narrative that will cohere over time.
“Sasha Gordon: Hands Of Others,” Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, 76 Grand Street, New York, NY. Through June 25, 2022.
Maud Madsen, “Daisy Chain,” Marianne Boesky Gallery, 509 W. 24th Street, New York, NY. Through May 28, 2022.
About the author: Margaret McCann has taught widely, currently at the Art Students League. She served as editor for the New York Academy of Art’s The Figure (Skira/Rizzoli, 2014) and has written art reviews for Painters’ Table and Art New England.