Daniel Bodner

at Roy Boyd Gallery, through July 6

Approaching the Figure

at Roy Boyd Gallery, through July 6

By Mark Swartz

For more than ten years Daniel Bodner has concentrated on painting a single male figure, rendering him over and over again in different colors and dimensions. So who is it? Bodner doesn’t work from a model or a photographic source. Is the man in the pictures his alter ego? His fantasy self? His sexual ideal?

The artist hesitates to identify the figure depicted in all 24 of his small-format oil-on-linen paintings in the downstairs gallery at Roy Boyd. “It could be anybody,” he told me.

“But he’s male,” I said.

“Yes,” Bodner answered. “He’s male, I’m male.” Indeed, the man in the pictures might well be the artist.

“But they’re not self-portraits,” he added, anticipating my next question.

Perhaps he honestly doesn’t worry about identity, concentrating instead on the formal and technical questions raised by his attempts to render the human figure in paint. Although the man in Bodner’s pictures resembles the figures in Alberto Giacometti’s paintings and sculptures, he lacks their physical or existential pain, and he doesn’t have a face–no hollow eye sockets, no grimace or wrinkled brow. If he makes any gesture at all it’s an indecipherable extension of his left arm, neither wave, salute, nor accusation.

The figure resists scrutiny, fading into the background when you examine him up close. In Untitled #8, thickly applied brush strokes make up his form, but they’re the same gray green as the background. RB 22 is just a head and torso, the rest indistinguishable from a flat purple gray background. (At first I thought “RB” was a clue to the figure’s identity, but it stands for Roy Boyd; Bodner painted most of these pictures expressly for this show.) The irony is that the more Bodner paints this man, the less visible he becomes.

Despite a superficial resemblance, the paintings vary widely in terms of the artist’s success in comprehending the figure. In RB 7 the legs are stiff and too long, and the head and feet are cut off by the edge of the picture surface, as if the artist started arbitrarily at the figure’s center and worked his way out without caring about composition. At the opposite extreme, RB 18 could be an academic illustration of contrapposto, a technique for giving the still figure a dynamic feel, perfected during the Renaissance. The anatomy is well articulated, and the space around the figure is energetically off balance.

But I’m less impressed by what Bodner does in individual paintings than I am by his overall enterprise, the repetitive reworking of an idea without any sign of tiresome, trendy obsessiveness–an artist repeating a meaningless act ad infinitum without having the courtesy to edit out the boring parts or to reflect on the waste involved. Bodner is going somewhere with his idea, though without making progress in any rational sense. I believe that he’s patiently trying to bring the homunculus to life: if he summons him often enough, eventually the little guy will break out of the painting, stretch his legs, and ask for a cigarette.

Anne Wilson and Anne Mudge, two of the artists included in the “Approaching the Figure” group show at Roy Boyd, are also making strenuous efforts to create new forms and ending up with figural shapes that are barely there, forms that almost evaporate before your eyes. Heavily involved in their materials, these artists are coming up to the edge of the same abyss Giacometti encountered almost 60 years ago, when, it is told, he sought to make a plaster woman so razor thin that he wasn’t satisfied until the work crumbled under his knife. One also thinks of Tom Friedman’s self-portrait carved out grain by grain from an aspirin, currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. It seems that the more these artists put into their work, the less they get out of it.

Mudge’s elegiac sculpture Vestige hangs from a single wire, almost floating even though it’s made of steel cable and lead. Suggestively humanoid, its chief structural feature is a serpentine network of lead beads reminiscent of a vertebral column. But the body implied by the mobile is almost entirely absent: no head, no limbs, no flesh. All that’s left is the feeling of a body, the electricity that ran through it before it went away. Leah Ollman wrote in the September 1993 ARTnews that Mudge’s sculptures “seem to have made themselves”; I got the opposite feeling. Vestige gave me the impression that it was unmaking itself, going from substance to energy.

Each of the four works in Wilson’s “Areas of Disrepair” series (numbers 7, 12, 13, and 14) consists of four pieces made from dark thread, light cloth, and hair. About the size of playing cards, the pieces don’t specifically reference the body, but they do appear caught in the midst of biological transformations. They seem to imitate the experience of the body on a cellular level. The threads might be writhing tendrils that cause the fabric to ripple and pucker before opening up cavities whose periphery they line. (I’d love to see a stop-action film of the making–or the unmaking–of these intriguingly repulsive works of art.) Like Mudge’s sculptures, Wilson’s pieces seem to move from embodied reality to disembodied concept rather than the other way around. Often there’s more absence than substance.

John Fraser, who’s less involved with his materials than Wilson and Mudge and tends to use readymades, in this show exhibits three whimsical reimaginings of The Invisible Man, the 1933 Claude Rains movie. Full Measure, a wall sculpture, comprises a size 17¼-inch linen collar about six feet off the ground and a pair of size 11 wood shoe forms atop a limestone plinth. There’s only empty space where the body would be. Fraser goes for a similar effect with a pair of suspenders in Belted, Suspended, and in The Appearance of Rain he makes a pun on the name of the most famous invisible man of all. The work consists of 25 linen collars arranged in rows on the wall.

In the movie, a side effect of the drug that makes Rains invisible is that he becomes a vicious murderer. Less grisly and more stirring is the ending of Frederick Barthelme’s 1993 novel The Brothers. Del Tribute realizes that his brother Bud’s mental health has taken a turn for the worse when Bud asks him to reenact a game they played as children–he wants him to wrap his head and hands in gauze so that he can pretend he’s the Invisible Man. As Del watches, bewitched and saddened, Bud goes out on the balcony and marches back and forth in the rain, exultant at the notion that he’s invisible, that he no longer exists. Bodner, Mudge, Wilson, and Fraser all flirt with the idea of invisibility, and in taking that liberty with the body they press a psychic button that sometimes activates fear and sometimes jubilance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of “Untitled #4” by Daniel Bodner.