Two nearly identical young women with bobbed red hair sit before a large standing mirror in a room carpeted in jungle green. One of them perches on a divan, holding a telephone away from her ear. Her white underwear peaks out from beneath a blue ombré tunic, the slightly indecent pose resembling the relaxed stances of Balthus’s underage models. Reclining atop several overlaid rugs on the floor, her twin, in nothing but stilettos, raises her arm above her head, her legs carefully concealing her private parts. This scene, shown in an oil-on-linen painting titled In the Mirror, served as an appropriate introduction to Jonathan Gardner’s exhibition at Casey Kaplan—his first solo show in New York—which comprised ten new works (all 2016).
Readily apparent in these works is Chicago-based Gardner’s adoration of past masters, from the Surrealists to the Chicago Imagists. Gardner (b. 1982), who studied under Hairy Who member Jim Nutt at the Art Institute of Chicago, belongs to a new generation of Midwest artists, including Keegan Monaghan and Ryan Travis Christian, who either cannot escape the legacy of Chicago’s most bleeding-edge group or don’t wish to. Almost every painting here depicts women in various states of repose and undress—often on fabulous, Memphis Group–inspired furniture—in bright domestic worlds populated with agents of reflection and transparency: mirrors, windows, and twins. Slight variations between figures hint at the subjects’ differing comfort with viewing and being viewed, as well as the artist’s role in capturing them. The girl on the divan in the aforementioned piece avoids the spectator’s gaze, averting her eyes to the left, unaware of or unconcerned about her exposed underwear. Her sister is one of the few female subjects in the works who engages the viewer. She poses willfully, perhaps for the painter himself, and quite seductively, even with her lopsided, tacked-on breasts, rendered in a style reminiscent of Léger. In Waves, a nude splayed out on a sofa, clutching a glass of wine, appears vaguely bored, as one might during the late stages of modeling for a painting. A clothed counterpart in Salmon Sofa, also reclining on a couch, seems blissfully unaware of onlookers, her face buried in a book.
Two paintings diverge from the odalisque trope, Sculpture in the Studio and Sculpture Posing. Both works depict abstract Surrealist sculptures on display in highly stylized rooms (the environment of the latter work bears an uncanny resemblance to the Max diner in “Saved by the Bell”). The inclusion of these unpeopled paintings reinforces my sense that Gardner does not intentionally proffer the female nude as a subject of male pleasure but has, perhaps unwittingly, laid bare the complex dynamics of objectification. On the single, flat planes of his canvases, Gardner renders his women as decorations, as carefully positioned as the furniture. While this representational tactic may seem unsettling, there have in fact been eras in art—particularly the Rococo in France—where women served as important complements to lush interior environments. Not merely passive petites fleurs, as art historian Mimi Hellman has argued, these women performed—with immense skill—elaborately coded social rituals.
I first saw Gardner’s work in a two-person exhibition, with Vanessa Maltese, at Nicelle Beauchene in 2015. The female figures in the paintings he showed there were titillating, sure, but standoffish too. They smoked like chimneys or played ferocious tennis—their apparent exploitation offset by a certain sauciness that his new figures lack. Gardner’s strength may be his ability to translate forms between one painting and another, exercising the possibilities of composition rather than representation. And so, I choose to feel no feminist guilt in enjoying these works for what they are: lovely, decorative, female worlds underpinned by fanciful plays of perception and observation.