criticismExhibitions
Thursday, March 25th, 2004

Penny Kronengold at First Street Gallery and Nicole Eisenman at Leo Koenig


Penny Kronengold, Recent Paintings and Drawings: Swimmers in Motion and Occasional Landscapes
First Street Gallery through March 27
526 West 26th Street, Suite 915 between 10th and 11th Avenues, 646-336-8053

Nicole Eisenman: Elizaville
Leo Koenig Inc, through April 10
249 Center Street between Grand and Broome, 212 334 9255

Penny Kronengold Swimmers 34 - Coaches and Swimmer 2003 oil on plexiglas, 16-1/4 x 24-1/8 inches Courtesy of the artist

Penny Kronengold, Swimmers 34 - Coaches and Swimmer 2003 oil on plexiglas, 16-1/4 x 24-1/8 inches Courtesy of the artist

It is usually a bad sign when a critic takes a punning cue from an artist’s name (by talking, for example, of the lightness of Fernand Léger, or the angelic quality of Raphael). But the way the name “Penny Kronengold” indicates monetary value at opposite poles of denomination finds a striking parity with the differing extremes of her painterly ambition.

In terms of scale, subject matter, historic style, and choice of venue, she might well seem small change. She could easily be dismissed as a pleasant late spin on familiar exemplars: in a way, she is a cross between late Chagall and the School of London painter Leon Kossoff (a meeting of the whimsical and the earnest). But time spent with her surprisingly rich, sumptuously invested, audacious inventions suggests that actually Ms. Kronengold is a kind of penny share made good.

Bathers are her subject. While there is neither the religiosity of Cézanne’s bathers, the luxe, calme, volupté of Matisse’s, or the tragic intensity of Bonnard’s, her choice of motif is the servant of perceptual preoccupations. In her case, her formal concerns amount to an almost alchemicial duality of solid and transparent, mass and fluidity.

She draws extensively from life at a public pool, then improvises with abandon at the easel. The result is an animated dialogue, at times, actually, a collision, of intense drawing and ecstatic color. She has a northern sense of line and a southern sense of color, greedily seeking to capture both essence and specificity in a way that recalls Oskar Kokoschka.

However wild, her choices in color are not gratuitous. Even when her color seems a decorative end in itself, it has the energy and purposiveness of color trying to denote space, weight, movement.

The energized awkwardness of her figuration serves to convey a sense of bodily mass affected by water, in terms both subjective and objective, perceptual and tactile. There is the feeling of seeing a body refracted through waves, but there is equally the feeling of *being* a body struggling against a mass of water, at times miraculously cutting through it through sheer focus of muscle and intensity of will.

Her latest paintings experiment with unusual choices of support, including plexiglass. This medium does something very curious with transparency-in any painting a fundamental concern but all the more so for an artist dealing with water. Plexiglass is inherently transparent, and yet it lacks the neutrality, the givenness, of canvas or linen, and so has the affect of arresting our gaze. In other words, it makes the ground physically see-through but conceptually opaque. In more sensual terms, it lends the paintings the freshness of fresco. It gives the painter a kind of readymade lightness to play with-lightness, you could say, that’s money in the bank.

Nicole Eisenamn Commerce Feed Creativity 2004 oil on canvas, 51 x 39-1/2 inches Courtesy Leon Koenig Inc, New York

Nicole Eisenman, Commerce Feed Creativity 2004 oil on canvas, 51 x 39-1/2 inches Courtesy Leon Koenig Inc, New York

Next to the politely cultivated work of Ms. Kronengold, Nicole Eisenman’s painting is pretty raw. Her crudity of vision and touch borders at time on cruelty, towards subject and viewer alike. Frankly, next to her latest series, which recalls the raucuous attitude of her early scatter installations, Ms. Eisenman is a “bad girl” painter who makes John Currin look prissy.

A few years ago, Ms. Eisenman produced a series of small, intense, quirky paintings on board that recalled German mannerist painters like Adam Elsheimer in their compacted energy. Her subject was a gang of mean, muscley, lyrca-clad ice-maidens torturing a hapless Acteon-type who had disturbed their eerie. Besides the sheer, cartoonish nuttiness of her vision, it was the tight and smooth delivery of her brushwork that gave the paintings their licence to shock.

The new works are bigger, angrier, in some ways more painterly, but correspondingly, on all counts, less intense. Her series is entitled “Elizaville”, apparently for the upstate, rural town to which the artist has recently moved. The gormless nastiness she parades there suggests her Elizaville could be twinned with neighboring Dogsville. The Otto Dix quality to the best painting in the show, “Commerce Feeds Creativity,” (2004), can be seen, in this context, as a counterpart to the perceived Brechtian aspect of Lars von Trier’s movie. In the rest of the paintings, she has upped the ante in terms of scatology and absurdity, but diminished the charm that gave edge to her earlier horrors. I guess, however, that with an artist with values as topsy turvy as Ms. Eisenman’s, regression might be a sign of progress.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 25, 2004.


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