Navigating the ambiguities of the six large-scale paintings (all 2009) that comprised the latest Muntean/Rosenblum show, “Untitled 09,” one naturally turned for guidance to captions executed in comic book-style uppercase letters at the bottom of each canvas. Unfortunately, the texts, tangential at best, only frustrate our attempts to make sense of the paintings—which is probably the reason they are there in the first place.
Ever since the early ’90s, this Austrian/Israeli duo has been constructing surreal tableaux populated by sinewy, self-obsessed youths. Culled from fashion magazines, they strike suggestive, pseudoclassical poses in scenes that, like dreams, offer no semblance of a logical or natural narrative. While the most recent paintings seem to provide more information, both in their settings and in the apparent drama unfolding, ultimately any sense of gravitas or significance is obscured by a focus on exaggeratedly bravado execution.
As an androgynous figure clad in a bright purple tank top stares out in fake anguish from the bleak urban setting of Untitled (The noises of the street . . .), other characters in the picture seem to mock us with their relative purposelessness. In the gray background, beneath a depressing concrete off-ramp, a kid with a red cape pedals by on his bicycle, while a pouty 20-something model seductively lingers, in contrapposto, on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, an ominously hooded guy in the foreground turns his back to us, presenting the skull and bones embroidered on his jacket like a threat. Not one of these inhabitants interacts with another. Their placement within the painting’s composition is completely contrived. They seem to beg us to fill in the dramatic blanks—perhaps discovering some story that links them. Muntean/Rosenblum’s standard white border and cryptic caption tease us with the promise of a poignant tale. We read about “TOMBS OF AN UNVISITED, UNHONOURED, CEMETERY OF HOPES” and return to the imagery, anticipating some degree of insight, only to be left numb by an intellectual sucker punch.
Like the lyrics of a Foo Fighters song that we mindlessly sing aloud, what at first might seem moving or deep in a Muntean/Rosenblum canvas yields nothing more than elegant gibberish. Each of the works offers the same devices: banal yet creepy backgrounds, attractive yet awkward kids, lush yet reserved brushwork. One caption, “HE WAS UNHAPPY IN A WAY UNKNOWN TO MEDIOCRE SOULS,” suggests that our lack of appreciation only proves our shallowness. Whether it’s a girl riding a claustrophobic escalator or a teenage boy stretched out on an abandoned mattress, the protagonists intrigue us with their otherworldliness only for so long. Likewise, no matter how cleverly constructed, these works fail to give us much more than a temporary buzz.
Photo: Muntean/Rosenblum: Untitled (The noises of the street . . . ), 2009, oil on canvas, 88 by 57 inches; at Team.