Vincent Desiderio is perhaps settling too comfortably into the role of master. Long considered one of the more skilled and thoughtful painters of our generation, his impressive 2011 showing at New York’s Marlborough put him amongst our best. The exhibition remains a peak moment in Desiderio’s career, where decades of discipline, contemplation, experimentation and deliberate execution came together in an inspired and powerful grouping. His Mourning and Fecundity II, I liberati, and Sink are contemporary masterworks, while few else in the series fell exceedingly short. The collection spoke of an artist in that perfect present tense, aware as much of a considered audience as in the assured lead of his own explorative hand. The best of these paintings hung with a consciousness above craft, their ranging stories both lucid and open. You do not stand in front of Morning and Fecundity II without wending imaginatively through the grave hours prior, nor is it possible to stave away the nearer end. The effect, long one of the great pleasures in Desiderio’s work, is a movement within and beyond the canvas that feels wholly cinematic.
Little of that movement exists in the new collection now on view at Marlborough. And though the theme of this series is “reification,” which suggests a solidification that might intend a termination of movement in the technical narrative as well, too many of these paintings nevertheless feel inert beyond the theme, which should not preclude a heartbeat.
Two works in particular highlight the contrast. In Transubstantiation, one of few paintings in the exhibition with any kind of pulse, we are witness to a collection of statues in an Indian temple. That they are statues indeed warrants scant motion upon the canvas, and considering the theme it is what we might expect. Parrying those expectations, however, Desiderio charges these figures with animating energies that bring them fluidly into being. They are not just alive, they are actively so. This “activity” is borne out mostly in the technical landscape of the painting — a push of orange from a severed limb, prods of shadow, the weighted applications of legs, the bracketing of bodies and positioning of hands — all nudge the eye inward toward a highlighted rump, then onward and around. The movement in itself generates a kind of sub narrative in the painting we are obliged to participate in, be it consciously or not. Our contribution here is in reading motion into the hips, an erotic thrust that courses upward and outward through each of the four figures, infusing each with an enlivening, sensual spirit. The figures spark alive at the play of our eyes and in that instant their entire domain shamanically shifts. Transubstantiation becomes the most interesting piece in the show because the artist on a technical level forges pathways that encourage a reciprocal viewing. The painting opens itself to the eye and allows our imagination to wander and take root. It comes alive because we are the living presence moving through it. We, then, become comrade in the artistry.
Ekphrasis, on the other hand — an enervate triptych mere footsteps down the wall — attempts to capture in one of its three panels an instance of outright motion: five stop-framed skaters in a roller derby match. Roller derby is that grand spectacle where teams of women brawl and spit and elbow each other headlong out of the rink — a pleasurable display of thuggery that generally whips the crowd into a playful frenzy. The sport, the women, the crowd all allow wholesale license for the artist himself to be equally playful in the rendering, join in his subject’s good fun, but Desiderio will have none of it. What he gives us instead is a sour, sad little portrait of women who are more skittish than in natural swagger. They mope, as if shrinking from some stern scolding. Observing them is no easy task (nor is it pleasant), for nothing in the scene pulls us in, particularly not these symbolic creatures, but nothing in the artistry as well. There are the gauzy delineations of craftsmanship, but the effect is thin and insubstantial. Worse, the image is utterly devoid of presence, which makes our viewing slightly unsettling because a suspicion creeps in that the Desiderio we’ve warmed to over the years has in the interim been snatched off by Pod people. As with the Pods, something of a replacement hand feels at work here, one fallen soft, somnolent, one-dimensional. Lacking in particular is any distinctive voice, which in absence strangely unspeaks the painting’s title.
“Ekphrasis,” by the way, literally means to “speak out,” and it refers to the act of describing an object of art in a dramatic and lively manner, as when, for instance, a poet describes a vase. Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is a high example of ekphrasis. The artfulness of the description is part of a long rhetorical tradition dating back to the Greeks who laid out rules as to how an ekphratic description should play out. Implicit is the obligation on the part of the storyteller to communicate the essence of the art piece — its timeless nature, its internal poetry — so as to conjure in the mind of the audience a vivid representation. The third panel of Ekphrasis clearly fails in that obligation.
But so too does the second. The middle panel in this large triptych is a sliced view of Degas’ bronze sculpture, The Little-Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, though lost are the curves and bursting adolescence of the original. Desiderio’s depiction, far from being in the ekphratic tradition, is more egregiously dispirited and dull. His languorous dancer is either tired, bored or simply can’t be bothered. She is given 1/8 of the canvas to express herself and, frankly, even that feels too much. Its tandem placement with the skaters, rather than producing an interesting juxtaposition or an amplifying linkage on some compelling idea, instead only siphons our interest further off. By the time we’ve taken in the complete canvas, which includes in the first panel a terrace view of an apartment/office bloc, we like Degas’ stand-in can no longer be bothered trying to thread meaning into the disparate, if impenetrable narrative.
Ekphrasis emphatically fails, and for many of the same reasons so too do the majority of paintings in this listless exhibition. One feels the artist has become overly bound in his own rigorous discipline and is now trammeled in ways no longer healthy to a lyrical, creative expression. Karloff’s mummy in The Awful Indifference (a lovely new work!) might offer a word of caution against wrapping oneself too tightly in the cloth of the ancients. Apart from the intellectually stimulating Three Acts of Defilement, which reads as a tacit indictment of the art world, few other paintings in this new series have anything to say that hasn’t gone buried in hermeticism and glaze. On display here are the exquisitries of craft, and that is not enough.