With a euphoric whoop and enough painterly smarts and braggadocio to take on all comers, Angela Dufresne once again entered into the fray of high-end painting, an arena currently preoccupied with rich bad-boy artists and intellectual abstractionists of the female gender. Chock-full of historical and literary allusions, the ambitious paintings in “Let’s Stay Together,” Dufresne’s latest exhibition, thrillingly demonstrate that her swagger is well earned.
Grafting film history onto the traditions of classical European painting, Dufresne’s earlier works displayed a kind of haphazard, off-kilter effect, as if the referents were slightly misaligned. In the new work, the artist has gleefully retooled her approach to signifiers, creating a fully integrated, atemporal world that is strangely alluring. Animals, satyrs, sultry moms, bewildered dads, ingénues and trim young men freely commingle in the artist’s suggestive vignettes. Like the assorted mythological and historical figures that crowd allegorical paintings, Dufresne’s shape-shifting players appear both archaic and contemporary at the same time.
Six of the eight pictures echo both the proportions and the centralized composition of formal, full-length portraits by van Dyck, Hals, Velázquez and other Baroque masters. Yet there are no distinguished, black-garbed noblemen standing at attention here. Baby goat slung over his shoulders, the solitary figure in Man and Kid (all works 2014) is caught in the midst of arcadian splendor, framed by the deep V of a split birch tree. Noble but bloodied, the young man could be any number of characters: Adam, Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans or a hippie-surfer dude. The devilish kid seems to be smirking, leaving us to wonder about the shenanigans that took place before we arrived.
Rather than the depiction of a frenzied, violent, sexual free-for-all, it is calm prelude or aftermath (it’s hard to tell) that delivers the voyeuristic charge. In Dwarf, Goat, Woman, Man and Head, a dewy young woman in a striped bikini straddles a baby goat while cradling a severed human head in one arm. Behind her, a balding man looks on tenderly while a faun sporting an enormous phallus stands at her knee. This darkly humorous blend of Freudian melodrama and flat-out strangeness is also present in Mother, Son and Foal. In the foreground, a young man awkwardly holds a foal to his bare chest, licking its furry muzzle, human and animal genitalia pressed tightly together. The icing on the cake comes in the form the mother—nude, slightly breathless, watching her son embrace the foal from behind a fallen tree. What debauched ritual have we stumbled upon? The heady, repressed perversions of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History come to mind.
Perhaps the most telling picture is the 10-foot tableau titled A Real Allegory of My Artistic and Moral Life, a joyous and wickedly funny homage to Courbet’s 1855 painting The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic (and Moral) Life. Sketched out in the artist’s usual jangly palette and featuring her blistering paint handling, Dufresne’s atelier is pictured as a place of art-making, pleasure and commerce. It’s also a dark, overheated “men’s” club, bustling with naked artists and models of indistinct gender, guitar-strumming satyrs and a rutting goat. Off to the right is the artist herself casually sitting before her easel, legs spread to expose pink genitalia, a paradigm of jovial machisma. Nude except for a floppy, black Renaissance hat, she’s discussing her latest painting with the only clothed person in the frame, a spitting image of Ivana Trump. Barmaid? Gallerist? Collector? Viva painting!