When the New Museum launches five solo art shows all in the same week, all by female artists, and has W Magazine and Burberry host an exclusive dinner in honor of the artists with invitees ranging from MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch to model Arizona Muse, you kind of expect the artists’ works to share in some underlying (perhaps fem and/or fashion-y) theme. But, aside from all the artists having vaginas, these exhibits couldn’t be more different. From intimate domestic spaces to larger-than-life installations, from our world to other worlds, the works of Ellen Altfest, Klara Lidén, Tacita Dean, Phyllida Barlow, and Nathalie Djurberg all do, however, expose or revisit or create ways of seeing—like good art should.
Ellen Altfest, Head and Plant
Photographers and drunken smartphone users alike know that so much of an image’s meaning depends on its cropping. What gets left in? What is cropped out, only for the viewer to infer what continues beyond the frame? Sometimes, an image of half a face tells more than a straightforward portrait. In Head and Plant, Ellen Altfest plays with these ideas of cropping, inviting unique perspectives to her still-lifes of gourds and male body parts. But Altfest is a painter, not a photographer. And she works from live sittings over long periods of time, and not photos, which makes her cropping choices much more deliberate and significant than the instantaneity one captures in photography.
But her subject matter is just as unconventional as her cropping choices. Altfest focuses mostly on the body, but not faces, torsoes, tits or asses; instead she paints the body parts that are often overlooked or hidden. The Bent Leg, for instance, depicts a flaccid penis peeping out from behind a very dominating white, veiny, hairy leg. Armpit speaks for itself. Toes, an even smaller work, depicts a man’s foot, with each hair in stark detail, and with the edges of the toes cropped out, existing just beyond the frame.
Working exclusively with the male body has raised critical questions of “reverse gaze” and male objectification, but Altfest’s work is not about gender politics. Her paintings are voyeuristic, but not sexual. In fact, her portrayal of these isolated body parts makes them foreign and even alienating, as though from staring at them for so long, and in different ways, the parts themselves start to make less and less sense.
There’s something very comical and shameless about Altfest’s small-scale, hyperdetailed paintings. Consider the title piece, the one work that comes closest to being called a portrait: a man’s reclining head with a bold green cactus plant right in front of his face, in shallow frame, blocking out his profile so that all we see is a beard and a head of hair. It’s almost surrealist. There’s no connection between the head we see and the identity of the man behind the plant.
Or The Back, depicting a man’s backside, shallow in the frame, hairs and pimples and discoloration at the fore. Details that we can only get in real life by being that close, like spooning a sleeping lover. Such upfront-ness makes all the shame disappear. The toes, armpits, and folds of skin that we keep hidden every day suddenly seem commonplace, reminding us that we’re just bodies.