Skin Deep

Domino Effect: Susan Rothenberg's With Martini (2002).Photo: Courtesy of Sperone Westwater Gallery

The astronaut floating in space, attached to his ship by a thin cable, is an iconic portrait of the contemporary world. It recalls the primal image of the baby in the womb, yet it provides us with little comfort or reassurance. Instead, it inspires thrills and chills. The excitement comes from its depiction of mastery over the void, made possible by the invention of a new skin – the space suit. We are liberated from traditional constraints; we can float, play, and explore new worlds. The dread in the image stems from fear that the umbilical cord might break. Then we would float off into the nothingness of space, having literally lost “touch” with humanity.

The exhibition Skin: Surface Substance + Design, which opened last week at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, is a provocative and original meditation upon the many new surfaces our society is creating. Like the astronaut floating in space, however, the show is at once appealing and disturbing, for these new techno-skins raise a fundamental but little-discussed issue in our society: the nature of touch and the role of the hand. The machine and now the digital age have transformed our relationship to touch, the earliest and most visceral of the senses. We may delight in the sleek, artificial, and mechanically produced, but we also fear the loss of the handmade and the close connection to the natural world that the handmade represents. Touch, a vital concern in all of the arts, especially affects painting. And it plays a particularly telling part in the work of two well-known painters who have not exhibited in New York for several years, Susan Rothenberg and Brice Marden – now showing at, respectively, Sperone Westwater and Matthew Marks – each of whom creates a distinctive “skin” that I think offers a telling contrast with those found at the Cooper-Hewitt.

Organized by Ellen Lupton, the Cooper-Hewitt show has a forward-looking, even utopian spirit rarely seen these days; it recalls exhibits from earlier in the century that eagerly awaited the future, celebrating the marvels of modern technology. Scientists can now re-engineer the human body and endow materials with miraculous new properties. As a result, both the skin of the body and the inanimate surfaces around us seem increasingly malleable. Boundaries no longer appear fixed. The world becomes more supple and responsive.

In Chromazone, designed by Karim Rashid, a tabletop changes color depending upon the warmth of the hands, elbows, and arms that people rest upon it. Household objects, such as pillows, can now glow with their own inner illumination. Certain surfaces can easily be moved; a group of architects has designed a portable skyscraper. Since new materials can be bent into almost any shape while retaining strength, buildings are no longer imprisoned by the rectangle: They can become curlicues. A chair can choose its shape according to the body that sits in it. A piece of clothing can become more than a fashionable covering and serve, instead, as a kind of active supplemental skin to protect or please us. There is a jacket, for example, that is a communications-and-entertainment system, with earphones and a mike in the collar that control a built-in mobile phone and MP3 player. The artist Alba D’Urbano has designed a dress imprinted with a photograph of a nude body. You can be naked while dressed.

Although the new technologies promise to refashion the surfaces of the world, making our environment more responsive to our touch, Lupton is too clever to leave out the snake in the techno-garden. She shows some of the terrors that attend the ceaseless changing and shedding of skins. Perhaps, for example, the world will receive nothing more than a shallow face-lift, losing its soul through its emphasis on appearances. Lupton shows a video by Leora Farber of an actual face-lift that is shocking precisely because the skin looks so wet and meaty when compared with the razzle-dazzle of manufactured surfaces. In Gepetto 2, Gepetto 1, an amusing work about the fear of biotechnology, the artist Margi Geerlinks depicts a man stitching together a live nude with a sewing machine. But there are few such shadows in this show. “Skin” is an optimistic celebration of play and open-ended possibility.

There does not seem to be much place, in this cheerful world of surfaces, for a medium like oil painting. The subtle fleshiness of the tradition appears bound to earlier ideas of the body. In fact, many artists now make pictures that are just as shiny, artificial, and conceptual in spirit as the work displayed at the Cooper-Hewitt; in such art, any quality of touch is usually ironic. For both Susan Rothenberg and Brice Marden, however, the traditional touch of the brush remains essential. Their art is very obviously “handmade,” and each artist holds on to earlier conventions of painting in a way that also speaks to the present.

Rothenberg is a kind of cave painter. She evokes the visceral beginnings, when artists first projected dreams upon a wall. Her surfaces have the peeling roughness of a decayed fresco; her urgent brushstrokes resemble callused fingers. She first attracted attention with archetypal images of horses but has more recently conveyed shadowy reflections of her life in New Mexico. In her show at Sperone Westwater’s new space on West 13th Street, there are some paintings of deer, but most of the pictures suggest a mysterious game of dominoes. Typically, Rothenberg provides a few fragments of recognizable forms – a disembodied leg or hand, an outline of a nose or an ear, a dotted piece of the game. As with an ancient ritual, the meanings of this game cannot be fully grasped. The forms gather toward the edges – as if seen from the corner of the eye – isolating richly painted centers. Reality is just a flicker in the mind’s cave. In Rothenberg’s art, however, even light and shadow have an insistent body. The most subjective sensations must pass through the fingers. They must be felt – literally – like clay in your hand.

Marden has another kind of “touch.” He evokes the end of a tradition – a period when an elegant, knowing, self-conscious artist refines what began in the rough caves. (In the catalogue essay accompanying Marden’s show, Jean-Pierre Criqui quotes the artist Sherrie Levine saying, “I stopped painting because I believed that Brice Marden had made the last painting that anyone could make.”) No less than Rothenberg, however, Marden founds his work on the sensations of touch. In the sinuous, ribbonlike lines of his recent paintings, he seems to follow the wandering hand wherever it leads. The lines do not describe anything particular but create a kind of idyll, an occasion for the aristocratic, carefully composed gesture; the beautifully burnished surfaces, in turn, have the subtle glow of living, breathing skin. The centerpiece of the current show is a group of paintings called the “Red Rocks” series, a reference to the evocative rocks that Chinese scholars loved to contemplate. Like those scholars, Marden is a connoisseur who finds the earthy in the aesthetic and the aesthetic in the earthy. His art is a dream of earlier hands, ranging from the ornamental swirls of the Book of Kells to the rhythmic lines of a Matisse dancer. The weaving, dancing Pollock always seems close by, too, but with his hand somewhat slowed by time – a Pollock recollected in tranquillity.

Does the handmade have a future? Is painting like Marden’s and Rothenberg’s just a nostalgic throwback? What’s missing from such questions – and from either-or judgments – is the recognition that certain conflicts are fundamental to our culture. There is a longstanding, ongoing, and inevitable tension between the hand and the machine. It will not go away. An artist like Rothenberg establishes links to the primal that reflect a powerful contemporary longing. An artist like Marden, in turn, creates a sensual connection to tradition, which also reflects a strong contemporary desire. Both are steeped in ends and beginnings. In the future, we can expect – like the astronaut in the void – one hand to hold on to the earth and the other to seek new worlds.

Susan Rothenberg
At the Sperone Westwater gallery; through 6/1.
Brice Marden
At the Matthew Marks gallery; through 6/22.

Skin Deep