In The Eyes Of The Beholder
Luis De Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles
through October 26
“I’m convinced we are all voyeurs. It’s part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows.” ~David Lynch
“In the classical narrative cinema, to see is to desire.” ~Linda Williams
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Laura Krifka, in her dazzling solo show The Game of Patience at Luis De Jesus Gallery, interrogates the notion of scopophilia (the sexual pleasure involved in looking) by painting staged interior scenes populated with perky post-adolescent voluptuous young women, handsome and fit young men and occasionally gender fluid persons– nude, partially clothed or barely clothed in a post-shower towel. These titillating figures are usually crammed into a shallow interior space that is wrapped by raucously patterned wallpaper that echoes Op and Pop art paintings.
In the amusingly titled “Copy Cat,” 2017, oil on canvas, 48 x 26 inches, a young woman clad only in see through underpants and bra, is copying an image of a cat from a how-to–draw book. Her leg is up on the chair seat inviting the viewer to see her mons pubis peeking through her panties. Shades of the Polish-French painter Balthus here with his predilection for eroticizing pre-pubescent girls by having their white underpants visible beneath their skirts as they lounge languorously about. Balthus’ “Therese Dreaming” (1938) not only has a young girl with leg up exposing her “private parts,” but has a cat licking milk (hmmm) and a striped wallpaper background! The Balthus painting entitled “Patience”, 1943, is of a young woman provocatively draped over a piano, with a striped shade or wallpaper behind her. Patience could be her name as well as a state of mind. Does it beg the question that you must have patience until these young temptresses achieve the age of consent? I think not, because clearly the pleasure is in the furtive looking.
Krifka is gleefully riffing on Balthus but with a feminist twist, willfully playing with the notion of the male gaze. What distinguishes Krifka’s male and female characters from Balthus’ young girls is not only age, (they are old enough to be aware of their sexual allure), but their sense of complicity.
However, they are not alone in their hothouse and claustrophobic spaces. Krifka uses both mirrors and windows not only as literal framing devices, but also as a way to amplify and deepen the mysterious narrative. In the gorgeously painted “Twin Pucker,” 2018, oil on panel, 50 x 40 inches, the two protagonists, a nude young man and a young woman in her underwear, sit in a very compressed space, with a looming wallpaper print, squeezing lemons (whose shape and color are repeated on the wall behind them). A window with wooden slatted blinds opens behind them showing a young man skinny-dipping in their pool (it is also a way of opening up the space of the painting.). Maybe the young man inside the house has just gotten out of the pool himself as he is sitting in a small puddle. As the title indicates, these two redheads are probably brother and sister. But we really aren’t sure of any of these relationships. Are they familial, sexual or friendly? The position of the man, and the stolid painting style in general, suggests the neo-classical style of restrained elegance that is the hallmark of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’ 1808 painting The Bather.
In the 2019, oil on canvas painting, entitled “Gemini,” 43 x 43 inches, two people, dressed alike in crisp white undershirts and charcoal gray shorts, are casually seated in a room. One figure looks decidedly male and the other figure is gender ambiguous – flat chested, but without any facial hair. The seated figure in front is looking straight at us, the viewer in a friendly but neutral expression. Again, the window is almost a character. Clearly reminiscent of the Hitchcock movie Rear Window, the viewer can peer into another apartment where two scantily clad persons are engaged in ambiguous behavior (fighting or foreplay or both). No shades or blinds on the windows assure that they want to be seen. There is simmering sexual tension baked into this and all the images. In Krifka’s stunning “Woman Drying Herself,” 2019, oil on canvas, 65 x 40 inches, a figure steps from one room to another while glancing towards the viewer. The interiors of both rooms are wrapped in bold wallpaper playfully evoking Escher’s warped perspectives of fish becoming birds. The protagonist is once more a traditionally beautiful woman with a perfect body and is framed by the doorway. Krifka’s joyful and highly detailed rendering of varied materials is as pleasurable as her handling of flesh.
Historically, female nudes were portrayed either as deities or mythological creatures (Botticelli’s “The Birth of Spring,” or Velasquez’s “Venus and Cupid”), or portrayed self-involved in their toilette (Degas and Bonnard) or models with the self portrait of the artist (Christian Schad) and only recently have contemporary artists like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage returned to the re-invent the nude female.
Krifka’s “The Dream,” oil on panel, 30 x 30, is one of the more humorous images here, and in the model’s voluptuousness, reminds one of a Lisa Yuskavage super-ripe nude. The figure, naked from the waist up, is about to fall asleep, yawning mouth invitingly agape. Circles predominate from the areola around the nipples, to the drawer pull, and especially the concave and convex egg wallpaper. One wonders if these eggs refer to the figures biological clock but in any case, it’s pretty funny.
It’s not only women who are being watched. In “Lions,” 2019, oil panel, 60 x 40, there is a lurking figure with his hand in his pants barely visible through the window in this nighttime scene. He’s spying on a young man, wrapped in a towel, sitting at a table engrossed in what looks like a child’s book on unicorns and other beasts. This image – like the others exposes the thin line between exhibitionists and voyeurs. The 2018 painting, “Blue Bowls,” oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, is almost an anomaly in this series, as it appears to be a masturbatory reverie. The blue bowls can represent “blue balls,” which was used for decades in the past as a way to guilt girls into having sex. But here, the male has his eye or mind’s eye trained on the butt of a fully dressed female (mother, teacher, neighbor) who is merely turning on a light bulb. It’s a provocative image on many levels—is it icky, stimulating, furtive?
Krifka’s work is a fully contemporary “take” on nudity, relationships, and pornography, (which is readily available on anyone’s iphone). Her sublimely painted allegorical works re-invigorate the tradition of the nude, with a wink and a nod, while simultaneously implicating the viewer in voyeuristic actions. We all become like Peter Sellers’ character Chauncey Gardiner in the 1979 movie Being There, who says “ I like to watch.” Or as the philosopher Marshall McCluhan prophesized in his book The Medium Is the Message, “we become what we behold.”