In the fraught present, the endurance and perceived stability of past traditions can hold a sirenlike allure. The six excellent paintings in Jordan Kasey’s first exhibition at Nicelle Beauchene (all 2017) convey a sense of surreal timelessness. The show’s title, “Exoplanet,” feels appropriate considering that the subjects portrayed in the paintings mimic earthlings but inhabit a neon-tinged alien world. Larger-than-life-size bodies that appear fashioned from clay push against the edges of the canvases. Built up in thick swaths of oil paint, the anonymous figures project an imposing air, largely due to the stony, carved-out quality of their features and the paintings’ confident scales (the smallest work is fifty-four inches square).
Four of the six paintings portray solitary subjects engaged in everyday tasks, such as sitting down to a meal (At the Table) or lolling on the lawn (Backyard at Night). The single multi-figure piece, Poolside, demonstrates many of the artist’s formal techniques. The claustrophobic scene is filled with burly bodies. A narrow strip of unshaded blue represents a pool and serves as the only indication of a wider space. Composed with a limited red-and-pink palette, the limbs of the huddled group of swimmers have a weighty and heavily modeled presence. The upper bodies of two figures, one of whom sits on a bright yellow bench while the other stands behind it, are cut out of the frame. Two other swimmers sit on the ground, on either side of the painting. The one on the right has her back to us, while the one on the left faces the viewer, reaching out to absentmindedly graze the gray-tiled ground––a subtle, inscrutable gesture that serves as the painting’s focal point, the only hint of movement in a scene of sculptural stillness. Kasey adroitly contrasts intimacy with alienation throughout the paintings. This crowded example seems to bring the figures very close to us, without ever letting us in.
Practicing Piano depicts a gray figure––bent over, lips nearly kissing the keyboard––passionately playing the instrument. The painting is almost overwhelmingly personal. Yet everything about the figure remains ambiguous. Kasey’s oneiric realism excludes signifiers for gender, race, and class, and any glimpses of individual identity. The inky black palette she used to render a figure sitting on the fluorescent green grass in Backyard at Night seems to impart little about race, but instead underscores the nondescript nocturnal scene’s melancholic or reflective mood.
Kasey, who was born in 1985 and lives in New York, engages classical history in her work; the best formal historical parallel may be found in Picasso’s interwar Classicist Period. The squad in Poolside could be descendants of the Pygmalion-esque women who inhabit Picasso’s The Source and Two Bathers (both 1921). Picasso’s classicizing aesthetic was part of a broader “return to order” in the wake of World War I, when many artists abandoned the extremes of the avant-garde in favor of seemingly timeless, traditional forms. In the 1920s, this shift provided the foundations for Surrealism, a revolt against rationalism and societal rules. Kasey’s static, alien view of the present, where scenes of intimacy are opaque and unsettling, is a welcome complication of returning and order, past and present, backward and forward.