Nightmarish and erotically charged, the imagery in Helen Verhoeven’s new paintings leads one to suspect that the exhibition’s title, Stage Disasters, refers as much to the stage(s) of psychosexual development as to dramaturgical mishap. The central concern of the show, which comprises five paintings centered on female subjects, appears to be the thwarted dream of maternal and sororal kinship. Rendered in sickly shades of washed-out pigment and dappled with Classical motifs and references to the portraiture of the artist’s native Holland, Verhoeven’s work interrogates and embodies a series of disquieting visions of misogyny.
May 11 – June 23, 2012
In “Second Movement: Acid Girls” (2011), one of three large canvases in the show, long shadows and furtive glances abound. A trio of femmes—less fatales than moribund—are at the center of the work. Their faces aglow with the greenish intoxication of Toulouse-Lautrec’s courtesans, these are women caught between conflicting impulses. One offers her nipple to a strange figure in the foreground while stealing a glance at some offstage presence. Another extends her hand to comfort a sleeping child, yet it’s clear that her attention, too, is elsewhere.
In the heavens or rafters above, shadowy figures gesture in disapproval or despair like incarnations of the reprehending fates. It is unclear whether “Girls” is a condescending epithet for the full-grown—if far from “grown-up”—women in the foreground or refers, rather, to the female children figuring in the work, one of whom stares at the subtly salacious happenings before her as though caught in the headlights of the primal scene.
“Donner Dames” (2011) depicts a number of seemingly fraught attempts at the performance of female identity. Near the top of the canvas, a woman in a maternity gown presents the fruit of her loins to the world as though holding up a trophy. In a subjacent corner of the work, another woman—herself resembling a child with a rag doll—sneeringly clutches her progeny with one arm. The malignancy of the possessive desire represented here appears to be indicated by the nearby image of an infant whose face has been painted to resemble a skull.
Suggestive of the manner in which archaic notions of identity still cling to the present, a figure straight out of the Dutch Golden Age stands, on the left side of the canvas, with her hands upon the shoulders of a more contemporary-looking woman. The latter, in turn, holds within her arms the framed image of a third female figure. Depicted behind this strange trinity is a blonde woman in a white dress presumably awaiting her Prince Charming. There appears to be an equivalence drawn between the bouquet she holds and the child-trophies in the arms of the other women in the painting; in this vaguely foreboding setting, normative dreams of prom queendom and coupling become mere instantiations of the logic of possession.
In search of a more redemptive take on the female subject, one might look to the small cluster of nymph-like figures near the center of the painting. This group, however, seems far off, inaccessible. Indeed, like Cézanne’s “Bathers,” which it resembles, this image of unconflicted female solidarity may be nothing more than another fantasy.
The largest and most visually accomplished work in the show, “Blue Thing (Naked Lunch)” (2011), presents a concise and captivating variation on the show’s central themes. Here precocity, maternal ambivalence, and the uncertain possibility of escaping the family psychodrama are all given unsettling treatment. In one corner of the painting, an axe-wielding prepubescent appears poised to carry out matricidal fantasies. In the center of the work, a young child reaches into the dark space between its mother’s thighs. Clad in nothing more than a pair of heels, the mother has lifted her hands to her face as if in ecstasy. Mirroring the mother’s pose, but sick with either disgust or envy, a figure in the foreground pauses to vomit.
Fleeing, stage right, from this family horror show, into what one presumes or hopes will be their respective adulthoods, are two women. One is naked but for her mismatched go-go boots and fishnet stockings. Still flaunting remnants of femininity’s inherited trappings, she seems confident in the path she has chosen. The other, pale and disrobed completely, appears to have opted for the road less taken—the one leading, should we speculate, beyond this intergenerational morass? It might not matter; she has already begun to look back.
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