Philip Pearlstein at Betty Cuningham Gallery

Philip Pearlstein, Two Models With Chinese Kite (2005), oil on canvas, 72″ x 60″; courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

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The more Philip Pearlstein keeps on doing what he does—painting dispassionate, starkly cropped studio set-ups pairing folk art with naked, usually female models—the more the usual complaints apply. It’s equally true, though, that the more he keeps on keeping on, the more unguarded and eccentric he becomes.

His recent efforts at the Betty Cuningham Gallery confirm the quibbles. Mr. Pearlstein is as drab a hand as ever. “Perfunctory” is too strong a word for the way he lays on paint. The palette similarly lacks invention; flesh, in particular, is rendered dull and unfeeling. Though a stickler for appearances and proportions, Mr. Pearlstein’s depictions of the human form can be ungainly and disjointed. A foot is too big here, an eye doesn’t sit well there, an arm juts forward into space unconvincingly: These are anatomical and pictorial gaffes that no figurative painter should allow himself.

But who would have guessed, some 40 years ago, that his signature dialogue between representation and abstraction would evolve into such a remarkable comedy of manners? Mr. Pearlstein’s collection of vintage bric-a-brac doesn’t just cohabitate with the nude women portrayed in the paintings. An inflatable chair, a duck kiddy car, a pink flamingo and a kilim rug each receive equal billing to the figures they accompany, and they engage in whimsical and, at times, surprisingly multivalent narratives.

Model on Cast Iron Bed with Weathervane Airplane, #1 (2005) is a droll joke on the limits of male desire. (To paraphrase Freud: Sometimes a weathervane is more than a weathervane.) In its own phlegmatic way, though, it might also be a meditation on 9/11. Of course, I may be reading too much into it, but terrorism has forever altered the implications of air travel. All the same, it’s refreshing that the picture can accommodate such a range of interpretations, from salacious to somber. It reveals an artist who has barely tapped into the considerable metaphorical possibilities of his work. His pictorial gaffes, then, are less liabilities than subtle yet integral components of his peculiar vision. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Pearlstein has only begun painting. May he keep at it for another 40 years.

(c) 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 2, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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