Alexi Worth: “Couples” at DC Moore

David Cohen, the New York Sun, September 7, 2006 ; also in


The girl in Alexi Worth's “Beautiful Unfinishable Magazine” (all works 2006) crouches in a moulded plastic Eames chair, flicking through an exotic travel section, her features partially obscured by the looming shadow of a man, perhaps the artist before her.  Together they make an odd couple, as is the norm for an entire show where, despite the title, not a single couple is depicted, side by side, Arnolfini Marriage-style.  As with Van Eyck, though, masterful testing of the limits of depiction is the order of the day.

Stylistically, the magazine reader has a foot in two epochs.  Her left foot, nearest to the picture plane, is classically rendered with academic finesse; the other is roughed out and distorted, altogether more modernist—although, equally, it is reminiscent of Renaissance Mannerism.  (Jacopo Pontormo and Fiorentino Rosso join Phillip Pearlstein and William Bailey as protogenitor's of Mr. Worth's touch and vision.)

This foot in two camps stands as a metaphor for Mr. Worth's strange enterprise.  He manages at once to relate to a contemporary sensibility, recalling the absurdist distortions of Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, and a prevailing fascination with the language of the comic book, and at the same time to be genuinely old masterly. Despite rare actual citation of historic paintings, which when they do occur are unironic, his work is blessed with a genuine fascination for the oddities of seeing and depicting that belongs to an earlier, more innocent aesthetic order than our irony-filled postmodernism.

As a critic and scholar, Mr. Worth has long been fascinated by the impact of photography on painting, lecturing and writing, in particular, on Manet and photography.  A large black circle dominates “Lenscap” revealing a kind of amor vacuii; pinching finger tips confirm it to be the object of the title.  In the right corner, deliciously rhyming with the cap and fingers, is a detail of Titian's Adam and Eve from the Prado, the matriach's finger's surrounding the forbidden fruit.  It is an elaborate allegory of painting's fall from grace with the advent of photography, but its also a cutely observed contemporary museum moment.

Part of his endeavor, as a practitioner, seems to be to discover subjects that only painting can reach —photorealistically probing areas that, actually, can only be painted.  “Double Sip,” for instance, captures a goofy, delicate moment of first date connectivity, when each party, taking a gulp of wine, spies the other, distorted within the glass, doing the same thing.  The result is a pretzel pile of multiply reflected, distorted, and overlapping fingers.  Requiring time to decode, the variously concentric and overlapping circles of bowl, stem, and base form a Venn diagram of surreptious intimacy.

Again, like the magazine girl's feet, the couples fingers are back and forth between recognizability and the kind of artifice which actually arises through fastidious attention to the real.  In “Key Entering Lock” the reflected digits in the mottled brass plate, while feint and distored, are more naturalistic than the drastically cropped, finger and thumb squeezing the key, on the viewer's side (it could be your fingers and key—one wishes the painting were hung lower to capitalize on the conceit) which seem schematic, if not abstract, although on closer thought you have to acknowledge that that is how it should be depicted.

There are more trompe-l'oeil antics in this show where the viewer is teased to identify the second half of the couple.  “Head and Shoulders” looks at first like an early twentieth-century personage : the shiny, wavy black hair to the left, vinyl-record smooth, resembling a Léger woman, the weird vaguely phallic arrangement to its right a chess-piece from a Magritte.  But then the egg-like shape registers as a male bald pate face-down on the identically colored, and seemingly joined to it, woman's shoulder.