Nude Models and Knickknacks: Painter Philip Pearlstein’s Surprising Scenes

Combining nudes with eccentric furniture and props is painter Philip Pearlstein’s calling card. Pearlstein paints from life, rather than  photographs, and the furniture and props are items he keeps in his studio. While a few of his works show figures lounging in an oft-used Thonet chair and other staid furnishings, most feature entirely unexpected pieces, ranging from a rocking chair to a blow-up chair to a modern chrome chair, and from an air mattress to a wrought iron bed frame. His compositions also include rugs and fabrics in rich colors and patterns, and in a few paintings the models don printed flowing kimonos. Pop memorabilia, knickknacks, African art, and other cultural artifacts also show up, and often occupy as much space on the canvas as the models. Including these curious objects seems to be the artist’s  way of folding variety, liveliness, and sometimes even art history into his paintings while maintaining his focus on naturalistic nudes. He can be obliquely comic in his decoration, as in Two Models with Kiddie Car Airplane, Chariot and Whirligig and Michelin Man (2010), in which clunky knickknacks overtake the models. The use of these oddities is a reminder that the scenes are elaborately, almost ridiculously staged, producing an intriguing tension between the inanimate objects and the nude forms.

Pearlstein’s depiction of the human form is focused but entirely unadorned and objective. He doesn’t elevate or idealize the body, nor does he handle it with kid gloves. We’re shown shadows of ribs, chest indentations, hanging folds of flesh, crags of bone. His models pose languorously within the frame, casually draped over items of furniture. They often appear to be sleeping or in states of complete relaxation, their heads and body parts sometimes cropped out of the paintings. He paints from various perspectives, like the bird’s-eye view in Model with Kimono on Clear Plastic Chair with Floral Rug (2011) or the crooked view from below in Model on Bentwood Rocker and American Quilt (2012).

The artist’s approach to the body is un-erotic, presented through his eyes as an organic machine, prone to constant transformation. He once said, “I learned early on that you can’t rely on knowledge of anatomy. One of the things that’s exciting is that you have to make decisions. Every time the model breathes or moves, things change.”

—Makiko Wholey

Philip Pearlstein: Paintings and Works on Paper” is on view at Fred.Giampietro Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, Sept. 6th–Oct. 11th, 2014.

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