Sex can be an experience of coming undone, of being in a body that is slipping out of the controlling forces normally exerted upon it, consciously or otherwise. Aging is also an experience of bodily undoing, of recalibrating sensation and sentience against ongoing wear and gradual disintegration and, sometimes, a total loss of control. Comparing these two very human processes may seem facile, but G.H. Rothe’s remarkable series of paintings of elderly couples in various stages of intimacy depict both aging and sex with an unnerving degree of clarity and tenderness.
Painted in 1987, but exhibited for the first time at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries since they were discovered posthumously by the artist’s son (Rothe died in 2007), the seven untitled tempera portraits are far removed from Rothe’s better-known subject matter: horses and dancers in their athletic prime. The paintings’ previous obscurity only added to the sense that we were gazing on something intensely private, like excerpts from a pillow book, a sentiment reinforced by their tightly framed compositions and modest sizes, not to mention the beautiful installation, with claret walls and pin-spot lighting.
Rothe pushed her medium into the extreme, masterfully rendering her subjects’ loosely hanging flesh, sagging genitals and wrinkled faces, while also—crucially—conveying their ecstasy in brushwork that is as forensic as it is luminous. Across the series, the figures’ genders become less discernible, their proportions less fixed. This is another of Rothe’s ways of depicting time’s wear on bodies, but it is also an effect of smart installation decisions. Viewed counterclockwise, the paintings move from realism to exaggeration, becoming more fanciful and grotesque. In some paintings Rothe has festooned her figures with opulent jewelry ripped straight from a Chanel runway, the pearls gleaming with dots of white. In another painting, a similar highlighting technique is applied to the teeth of the practically skeletal face—the upper lip but a thin caul of ghostly flesh over emerging bone—of a figure eyeing a partner’s flaccid penis.
This sequence of increased sexual, corporeal and compositional interpenetrations culminated most spectacularly in the final painting. Here, the male and female heads are fused onto a shared torso, the translucence of which reveals a thicket of capillaries and veins, sinew and flesh. A breast puddles at the bottom of the composition as a darkened hand juts a thumb toward the red corona emanating from where the male figure’s left breast would be. His heart glows like E.T.’s. At once coming together and falling apart, Rothe’s senescent lovers point to the end of all flesh, and the binding and undoing currents of desire that still roil beneath the skin along the way.