Tal R: Keyhole, 2016, pigment and rabbit-skin glue on canvas, 94½ by 74 inches; at Cheim & Read. 

Tal R’s work fits into a subgenre of contemporary painting that could be defined by its stylized figuration featuring saturated or high-key color and conceptually adroit subject matter laden with autobiographical references and surreal imagery. Paintings by Peter Doig, Jules de Balincourt, and Amy Sillman also demonstrate such a style, while those by twentieth-century figures like R.B. Kitaj and William N. Copley (aka CPLY) can be considered precedents. 

Crisp outlines and flat areas of unmodulated color distinguish Tal R’s compositions. Made with pigments and rabbit-skin glue, the paintings have a slightly waxy texture and an intense luminosity. His drawing style and imagery have a deliberately childlike feel, which belies his savvy art-historical allusions to modernist masters like Matisse and Munch. Sexuality is a frequent topic. The artist has exhibited a preponderance of nudes, mostly female ones, in sexually charged settings and poses in recent outings, such as his solo shows “The Virgin,” at Denmark’s ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in 2013–14, and “Altstadt Girl,” at Cheim & Read in 2015. The eleven large-scale paintings and ten works on paper in his latest exhibition at Cheim & Read, “Keyhole,” explore sexuality in a subtler and more indirect way, by depicting the exteriors of sex clubs, brothels, gay bars, sex shops, and the like.

Born Tal Shlomo Rosenzweig in Tel Aviv, in 1967, to a Czechoslovakian father (a Holocaust survivor) and a Danish mother, Tal R grew up in Denmark and currently lives and works in Copenhagen. In interviews, he often remarks on his persistent feeling of being an outsider, a bit of biographical information that resonates with these paintings, where the viewpoint is always from the outside. We approach, but never enter the buildings. The images—loosely based on photos the artist took or friends sent him—are entirely devoid of people, with human presence only implied, by way of the erotic activities the viewer imagines taking place inside. 

One of the best and most imposing paintings, Cabaret Closed (2016), shows a field of juicy pink and golden yellow stripes on the facade of a nightclub. The word CABARET is written in cursive at the lower right edge of the canvas. This work, and many others in the show, conveys a palpable sensuality, an unabashed sumptuousness. Satisfying even in purely visual terms, it reads almost like an abstraction.

At times, sexual references are more overt. The exhibition’s title work (2016) presents the viewer with a bright orange hallway leading to a pink door. On the door is the silhouette of an oversize keyhole, suggesting female genitalia. In the luridly colored Sex Palace (2016), a phallic white lamppost stands before a black rectangle framed by neon circles and the phrase SEX PALACE in turquoise. Still, the central effect of this body of work is that of action withheld—a feeling conveyed with particular force in the less splashy, and somewhat intimidating, black-and-white painting L’Evasion (2015), whose lower foreground is spanned by a chain-link fence, barring the viewer from entry.