The 18 loosely grouped paintings (all 2009) that Ross Chisholm presented in his first New York solo show brought to mind nothing so much as a postmodern version of a BBC miniseries set in an earlier age. Plumbing the last 300 years of English life using today’s painterly rhetoric, this Briton revels in the way the two moments—then and now—never quite mesh.
His subjects are borrowed, singly or in combinations, from several distinct art historical and vernacular styles, in this show mostly 18th- and 19th-century grand portraiture, found holiday snapshots from the 1970s and geometric abstraction. As a way to generate subject matter, this approach is rather academic, obliging the viewer to perform feats of art historical recognition. Fortunately, Chisholm’s touch manages the rare combination of delicacy and confidence that allows one to enjoy the intelligence of how the paintings are made, even without knowing all their references. Taking pleasant liberties with his subject, Chisholm creates, for example, an elegantly relaxed cover of Gainsborough’s Lady Sheffield (1780) in Overlooking the Black Waters of the Volga, Ships Amass (Lady Sheffield). In other works, particularly those based on the found snapshots, the faces and fabrics are taken to a greater degree of realism, without getting persnickety.
The paintings at the core of the show combine geometric abstraction with images of famous ladies from 18th- and early 19th-century portraits. Both also appeared without each other. Sometimes the women are adorned with sharp spikes like misplaced accoutrements from a 1980s heavy-metal GWAR show. Elsewhere, in the purely non-objective works, inward-pointing spikes are somewhat too reminiscent of the retro-geometrics of Mark Grotjahn or Tomma Abts.
Chisholm’s choice of small scale and, occasionally, junk-store frames, mats and even supports connects his paintings to the sort of pictures—inexpensive, store-bought, with subjects harking back to an idyllic past—that one might find in a granny’s flat. In Slagheap, Slagheap, Black Rivers (2009), Chisholm simply smears an extra mountain onto a beat-up, gilt-framed reproduction of an 1880 pastoral scene, identified by the date in the corner. The greenish-black hue of the drippy paint would fit right in with the faded inks, except that it is too dark, a snarl at the past.
The one painting that didn’t fit was the biggest (34 by 42 inches), Fury, a deadpan view of a man’s flayed or burnt back. It’s painted with the least competence, and in addition seems to suggest, none too subtly, that we are dealing with “important” themes. It made one realize that the other paintings work best precisely when they stay good-naturedly in their small sphere of fascination with the odd thing called Englishness.
Photo: Ross Chisholm: OP 2000 (Last Days), 2009, oil on linen, 12 by 10 inches; at Marc Jancou.