The Mad Bodies of Natalie Frank

Praying in Bed, 2011
Oil on canvas: 62 x 42 inches


Brooklyn-based Natalie Frank’s latest paintings, featured in her solo show “The Governed and the Governors” at Fredericks & Freiser [through Nov. 3], address power, gender and sexuality. Depicting figures in dreamlike spaces, Frank’s paintings seem to unearth the depraved, irrational desires of their characters. Exorcism (2012) presents a man looming over a bedside and a reclining female nude, whose arms, dangling off the mattress and cropped by the edge of canvas, may be fettered or amputated. Frank told A.i.A., “I want to make paintings about power—they may use sexuality, identity and, at times, whimsy, to speak to these narratives, but these are means to another end.”

The works exude a tenacious vitality that has carried over as her style has transitioned from the photorealist, almost journalistic style of her last New York solo exhibition, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in 2007, to an expressionist magic realism. While previously Frank mainly worked directly from life, her latest characters and environments are inspired by literature. She cites J.M. Coetzee, Martin Amis and Karan Mahajan, among many others. “Many of the writers I look towards have a Magic Realist edge,” said Frank. Figures are forcefully, sometimes incompletely painted and are usually performing unknown or unclear activities. In Inspection (2010), for example, three figures gather around an examining table. Their faces are meticulously painted, while bodies dissolve into various degrees of partially modeled flesh.

Tables in the artist’s Bushwick studio are scattered with photographs of models she transforms into paintings. In another canvas with a reclining nude, One, Two (2012), two androgynous figures heaped together form a stack of flesh and occupy a darkened interior. Although Frank describes the scene as a supine woman from which another figure emerges, it is easy to read the work as two men engaging in fellatio. Indeed, it’s enigmatic and unclear also whether it’s an act of sex, cannibalism or domination.

These paintings display a tense, conflicted balance between figuration and abstraction, recalling the fleshy surfaces of Willem de Kooning and the illogical spatial constructions and indeterminate narratives of Neo Rauch. Frank cites female contemporaries that work between abstraction and figuration, such as Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman and Dasha Shishkin, saying, “Their hands and the way that they describe form make me think of the intense power in some of the later Guston works; caricature has a fierce tradition.”

Two Figures in a Landscape (2012) is the loosest, least descriptive painting of the suite. The figures’ details, molded with darkeded outline and broad infill, never coalesce into fixed form. Features are foresworn for dragged alla prima strokes, mixed as they are pushed across the canvas. With this painting, Frank unflinchingly pushes the boundaries of her opposing sensibilities and comes into her own.