Body of Work

Cornered grab

Joan Semmel: A Lucid Eye

January 24—June 9, 2013

The Bronx Museum

Painter Joan Semmel first became best known for the body — remarkable redefined nudes seen in seemingly surreal distortion from an actually just uncommon vantage, the woman’s (this woman’s) own perspective, looking across herself; in the artist’s newest show the images are mostly of heads, and she’s looking straight at you.

A long frieze of self-portraits responds to the currency of the face in present surveillance and security culture and the personal celebrity of social media; her single subject focuses us on an individuality in this sea of self-regard and restores personality to a Warholian beauty-queen run of reproduction.

The show is specifically themed to Semmel’s dialogue with mechanical means of recording the visual, and she has always preferred to leave in and account for the distortions and uneasy kinetic transitions of photography. So even as we are seeing her face in multiple, no two are alike, and often no one is, as the image is caught between points in motion. This can sometimes re-create the carelessness of a Facebook selfie (though even that is a statement on what we make each other sit still for), but it is the revelation of uncapturable wholeness of character in remarkable canvases like Untitled (2010), in which the closer half of the face is true to life and the farther one true to perception, psychology, history, morphing to a mask of abstract expressionist contour and color that echoes the artist’s lifelong interest in blending techniques from across the spectrum of “realistic” and purely painterly practice and witnesses the unspecifiable essentials of a creative, changing soul.

The thin surface of most of these paintings is growing as evanescent as a screen image; her paint application is not as solid as it had been up to the mid-2000s, as if the canvasses are closing a distance with the immediacy of thought, the vicinity of moments and nearness of the next future, the ephemerality of our fleeting electronic environment and the veil of mortal existence.

This starts in the included works from the middle of the last decade, in which the frame pulls back to show Semmel taking her own picture in wide mirrors. In one (Double X, 2005), fully clothed, the reflected flash blurs out to an otherworldly glow from a camera settled between her legs, a metaphysical gag that could have been cheap in another artist’s or any number of online-album posters’ hands but here becomes a wry riddle of satiric reflection on social single-mindedness, personal enlightenment and where the sun shines out of, a sublime sarcastic modern sheela na gig achieved through high humor and medium tech.

No artist composes images more rich in references that draw so little attention to themselves, and in two fuller-bodied works from the first half of the 2000s and soon after (Centered, 2002 and Cornered, 2006) we see Semmel unclothed again, crouching in complex postures to catch the image in compositions that put the outlook and light at her head. These recall, though never specifically, the intricate physical geometries of sculptural Indian deities, the tangle of erotica or pornography and the contortions of women’s uneasy positioning in still-unequal society, and the elegance and exertion of a woman who would be, and set, her own model.

Hung in a museum, this is the rare sight of a veteran artist not summing up but striding forward. We see Semmel’s face again and hear her voice as well in an accompanying video that adds much to what we know about her career while expanding far on what we can think about it, matching the lucid eye with the luminous mind.

[Semmel’s site and an earlier impression]

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