Artforum / May 2008
The title of London-based painter Paul Housley’s recent New York solo debut, “Night Paintings,” seems, at first, merely a disarmingly prosaic reference to the fact that the small, quiet pictures therein were made after dark. But there is more to the outwardly straightforward designation than that. Registering Housley’s deceptively childlike handling and apparently affectless subject choices, one might, for a start, trace a connection to Night Studio, Musa Mayer’s 1988 memoir of her father, Philip Guston. An association between the two artists has been made before: Writer and curator Andreas Leventis cites Guston in a 2005 catalogue essay on Housley, implying that the pair might share a fascination— and difficulty—with the attempt to render “a single form in its continuity.” (Guston uses the phrase himself in relation to portraiture; Housley applies an aligned thought more broadly: “You try to make it all work at once, in one spontaneous moment, like it dropped out of the sky.”)
But the resonance of Housley’s title is not only either art-historical or methodological. It also hints at a certain contemplative atmosphere, an aura of after-hours introspection that haunts the pictures in spite of the vaunted urgency of their maker’s technique. Housley works small, in oil on canvas or paper, painting humble domestic tchotchkes, and producing variations on found images, painterly genres, and popcultural motifs. So, in this show, we saw Bought White, 2008, an image of a pottery cat tinted with sickly greens and browns; Dream in Snow, 2008, a roughed-up winter landscape centered on a shotgun shack; and Pink Fader, 2007, a tiny, gauzy study of a blank-faced Superman. Housley’s work has something of a thrift-store aesthetic, its muddied tones, hobbyist scale, and queasy blend of melancholia and creepiness suggesting the moldering fruit of an abandoned evening class.
But despite the hint of retro kitsch that flavors his work, Housley has claimed to be increasingly bored by the irony this might suggest. In fact, it is in his aspiration to avoid mere cleverness, to move beyond the temptation to parody or mock, that the artist’s preference for “dumb” subjects resides. In depicting objects that are not only commonplace but also appear weathered, aged, or tainted by questionable taste, he begins by establishing a mood rather than outlining a set of clear conceptual constraints. The work poses questions of a kind, but they unfold gradually and do not necessarily have verbal equivalents.
Black Elephant, 2008, for example, an image of the titular creature, its eyes and tusks glowing a soft yellow against a dark ground, imparts a forbidding air that irresistibly preempts any questioning of its origin and purpose, consideration of its formal composition, or attempt to situate it within the artist’s referential menagerie. If “Night Paintings” had a prevailing ambience, it was along similar lines. Laughing Skull, Eating History, and The Old School (all 2008) all depict death’s heads (whether real or artifi cial is unclear) leering from tabletops, while the partially blotted-out face of a woman in Tracer, 2008, exhibits the kind of quiet violence with which the work of Luc Tuymans is habitually identifi ed. But whereas Tuymans’s imagery and application have a whispered quality that implies a kind of horror, Housley’s lamplit sketches suggest something closer to a mutter— puzzled, unsettled, occasionally amused, wondering out loud (though not very loud) at the ultimately ineffable absurdity of things, and of the drive to represent them.
Image: Paul Housely, Laughing Skull, 2008