Zoey Frank’s counter-cultural party

Zoey Frank, Pool Party, Oil on canvas, 114 x 96”

Art isn’t a contest. There are plenty of art competitions, yes, and there are hierarchies of talent, but the idea of scoring Piero against Giotto . . . what would that even mean? However, if painting were a competition, after seeing Zoey Frank’s current work, painters with a competitive itch might want to consider something comparatively easy as an alternative, like running a three-minute mile.

Frank is freakishly talented, a technical virtuoso whose work often has a cool, emotionally remote tone. Her chill facility hasn’t exactly been a hindrance. It was no surprise when Danese/Corey decided to sell her work. As I’ve followed her, I’ve often felt her greatest strengths were the ability to capture and convey fine gradients of inarticulate feeling—my favorite kind—where it’s almost impossible to distinguish between feeling and perception. She achieves this through her amazing discriminations of how light falls in different ways on objects depending on their distance from the viewer and position in a particular space. Her spaces seem quietly more alive than the objects that occupy them, her scenes hauntingly discernible, but in an indeterminate way.

She’s never content with representational prowess, constantly requiring the viewer’s visual understanding to flip back and forth between two and three dimensions, flattening her image into abstract patterns and then popping it back out into what’s easily identified, often without feeling the need to make the image entirely coherent. Much of this is at the core of what the perceptual painters tend to do, but she does it in an especially complex way, and the complexity often feels like something she has pursued for its own sake. Her surfaces are intensely alive, offering no place to rest. She gives her scenes an allover quality that dispenses with anything like a focal point, in the way a Persian rug greets the eye, but without its regularity and symmetry. She wants that middle ground between verisimilitude and geometry, but she also wants to create an almost Escher-like visual tension in a scene that often seems visually impossible so that the abstract and representational elements don’t quite abide each other. This strategy disorients the viewer, taking you out of familiar time and space, pushing you into a waking dream, vaguely nostalgic, that sometimes just flattens into a pattern that might as well be a strip of contact paper stuck to the canvas. With her, it’s sometimes like seeing the world whilst being a tad high on a controlled substance. It isn’t surrealism. She has none of that dark weirdness. Looking at her epic scenes of social gatherings, her teeming hives of cheerful and happy human activity, it’s more like remembering a sunny summer love-in from the Sixties than some episode from the subconscious. It isn’t about the recesses of the mind. She’s is an intensely outward-looking painter.

Her latest post on Instagram won me over. It’s one of the large paintings she will be showing, starting Thursday, at Sugarlift, a thrilling little operation, full of hope, piss and vinegar–the breakfast of all champion painters and gallerists–in its view of the current art scene. There’s a bit of Artsy in its business model, I think, but it has a new, cool brick and mortar space on W. 28th St.  It seems to operate less like a traditional gallery and more like a continuous flash mob of quality painting outside the mold of the big white cubes where the most ridiculously priced work gets shown. (Pay a visit to Zwirner in Chelsea right now, if you want to see a depressing contrast of big money chasing diminishing returns for the viewer. It will intensify the glimpse of sanity that Sugarlift represents.)

In Frank’s new painting, people are situated around and in a swimming pool. Everything fits together. There’s no splicing of figures seemingly from different views of an event. Pool Party is of a piece with her other large paintings, where that civilized and more conservatively dressed hint of a Woodstock vibe lurks in her sun-drenched gatherings outdoors. But hers are well-behaved weddings and parties, domestic, familial, neighborly, not underscored by grand statements about life or society. These are scenes of contentment, friendly kinship. It’s an orgy of old-school normalcy and middle-class predictability. She plays it straight and lovingly. There’s no sardonic smirk here, nor does the technical virtuosity undercut the respect and pleasure she takes in the commonplace human connections of ordinary people she celebrates.

While she’s offering this quilt of hourly, mundane narratives, paintings as dense with briefly glimpsed human interactions as a Bruegel, she continues to work the surface of the painting in a slightly Cubist way, creating an armature of almost arbitrary lines that seem to serve as edges of shadow but also mark the transition from one quasi-flat area of paint to another, curving through a three-dimensional form. It’s the way a line works in a Braque tabletop, where a continuous fissure cutting through various forms can be both the edge of a knife and the string of a guitar. Yet in Pool Party these lines, these techniques, are subtle enough that you hardly notice them at first. Then, the more you look, the more you realize how flatly rendered shapes were just informative enough to seem three-dimensional. In this case, the patterns work as realism and don’t pull you out of it. That’s a remarkable truce between abstraction and representation. She has found the perfect balance here, for her. Somehow, the Cubist tendencies can make the three-dimensional shapes even more defined in a way that creates little pings of pleasant visual surprise. Swimsuits flatten into wallpaper patterns, but she divides the pattern into areas hit by the sun and those left in shadow—so the modeling of the form comes simply from the shift in values rather than by curving the pattern of a swimsuit around the shape of a breast or hip. Flat patterns are everywhere in the interstices between faces and arms, yet they work without violating the realism of the image, as a kind of shorthand. A partition in the back of the gazebo moves across your field of view, peeking out between people, making the image shallower by pressing forward against the three-dimensional figures, so that everything and everyone seems to be placed in compacted space, all of the bodies quietly roiling together almost as one organism. (Which contributes to the Persian rug effect.) Everything presses forward. Step back and the entire image looks like a large complex pattern itself, a continuum from one edge to the other, with no negative space, no background as such, not even those leaves clustered in the upper corner.

Yet, in this painting, even with all of this modernist business going on, the image, at first glance (and then after continued study) still looks almost as directly presented as, say, The Surrender at Breda, an equally busy, complicated image. What Pool Party has in common with Velasquez is, well, a whole bunch of people, but also the sense of immediacy, the living breathing present moment, with a flame of joy at its heart (as Velasquez has in Breda). Without any mediation, without any sly, knowing commentary or any attempt to take you out of the abundant pulse of the now, she offers an appreciation for the decency of the people having fun in and around a pool. The way the two figures reach up and wrestle with a colorful banner, or bunting, for the party, in the upper right corner brings to mind the two figures in Raft of the Medusa—another group of people crammed together—desperately lifting fabric into the air as an S.O.S., a plea for rescue from the ocean. The irony of that reference is slightly comical: the ocean has been tamed into a recreational pool and life has become reliable, safe, and predictable—people surround the water, not the other way around. This is no place for Gericault’s existential dread. That mood, that happy affirmation of what human society has achieved, seems to be where Frank is headed, and in this regard, speaking of water, she actually brings to mind Renoir. It’s thrilling to see someone step back to the dawn of modernism, the Impressionists, and harmonize her scene with Renoir’s boating party in their tank tops and straw hats, everyone laughing, everyone fully alive, nothing contrived going on with the way the paint is finding its place on Renoir’s canvas. Pool Party is far more contrived stylistically but it works in a similar way. It’s about fun.

That willingness to echo Renoir, though, lurks as something radical, by implication, in this painting. Not radical in the old art historical terms. Radical as a skeptical apprehension of where the past century and a half have taken us as an intellectual culture, with a refusal of the brooding critique of normalcy that art seems required to embrace since Picasso and the early expressionists. Formally, Frank is pulling from quieter modernist traditions, but here is a painting—in its totality—that actually affirms ordinary human experience familiar to most people as a good thing. And she is affirming it without condescension, without a political agenda, without any pretense of superiority toward what is essentially ordinary, middle-class happiness. Norman Rockwell did this as well, brilliantly, and it took decades for someone by the name of Dave Hickey to give Rockwell the respect he deserved. There’s a lot more going on here than in one of Rockwell’s paintings; Frank’s painting is steeped in modernism’s journey into abstraction, but in spirit it’s a celebration of human ordinariness that seems to have been largely occluded by visual art and its intellectual analysis over the past century or so. Marxism’s identification of the bourgeoisie as the repository of everything inauthentic and oppressive—a loathing embedded almost subconsciously in much of what has happened in visual art in the 20th century—seems to have no place here. This is a vision of American suburban life, dug in, settled and secure, unglamorous, friendly. Renoir’s drinkers were charismatic. They could have been the young and beautiful hipsters, the Silver Lake and Williamsburg crowd, of their day. Here, almost everyone in the painting who isn’t a child is middle-aged or older. This is the mundane happiness most people feel in their lives right now, pandemic notwithstanding, contrary to the vision of our culture that’s fed into the port behind your neck the debased media keeps plugging itself into, hoping for a profit. Frank’s is a subversively beneficent vision of what actually rules in this country most of the time for most people: friendship, family, decency, love, happiness, and cheerful conversation. These days, a painting that affirms that kind of everyday beauty in a happy community of people feels both gleefully against the grain—counter-cultural in a way the Woodstock generation would have considered extremely uncool—and deeply wise.

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