Painting Diversions

(1) Sword tightly in her right, young Judith with her left hand passes on the severed head of Holofernes into the left hand of her old maid (wrinkled face) to put away in a bag. That is the grim story being deftly enacted and displayed in the foreground of the painting by Rubens, circa 1615, in the museum in Braunschweig, Germany. Judith's left arm is stretched out in front of her - her hand holding the dead head by its hair and dangling it (the trophy) before our eyes. At the same time, that demonstrative gesture subtly and creates some space between the pale head and the upper part of her body. The burning candle, partly obscured, in the maid's right hand spreads light and smartly illuminates the smiling face of Judith and, even more, her almost bare breasts revealed by an ample decolleté. The left breast is shown as a generous swell of flesh, the nipple covered by the bodice's hemline. But, as our eye passes gently on, the full right breast begins as soft swell then turning into a shapely silhouette. Thus we see a gorgeous pink nipple round and, in outline, hard and aroused as well. This is the great elusive diversion. Rubens made that nipple (fresh and gleaming like a cherry, against dark shadows, catching light) appear as a spectacle. I believe such diversions make the painting so mysteriously seductive and attractive. There is so much to see - and once again the little nipple leads one to reflect on the detailedness of all art. Or, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins's wonderful poem, Pied Beauty:
Glory be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings.....

(2) Why Rubens' nipple came to mind? I was looking at recent paintings by Dan McCarthy. They caught me unaware, creeping up on me with their weird charm and attraction. The girls, it seemed, were mischievously (or just playfully) showing off, displaying themselves like Judith - or, indeed, like the greatest performer of all: Venus rising from the sea in Botticelli's painting, sexy and coy and artfully wrapped in long golden hair. The actual subject matter of most paintings is quite simple and easy to see. In Botticelli a slender girl on a shell flanked by floating figures. But the way these figures are wrapped, like Christmas trees, excessively, in flowing and curving ornament - that was Botticelli's diversion. It is the sheer exuberance of it that makes the painting compelling because its sly energy keeps captivating one's eye as it roams around. You can literally not take your eyes of a good painting: there is always another diversion that keeps them there.
For instance, Dan McCarthy's painting Queen's Warf is very clever piece of pictorial display. The thing seems simple enough: a bikini-clad girl standing there, her body pushing forward just slightly, against a backdrop of slender mesh and a blue pool. The colours are pink and light powder blue - intensifying each other. But then the mask-like face: blue, pink noose, wide laugh and white teeth, eyes turned to the right, not looking really, a grimace. Then, also, the striped hair, with yellow. Or is it some kind of scarf? What it is: all these details are diversions, as are the navel and the blue-and-pink nipples in the transparent bra. After the profound intervention, in the 20th century, of abstraction in also socalled figurative art, nothing ever was the same. We can see in McCarthy's paintings how every posture or gesture and even colour began as rather natural and relaxed, easy-going, but in the paintings they end up strangely skeletal and constructed and as recherché, really, as the off-balance walking postures that Bruce Nauman produced in his early video-pieces. It may be that, sentimentally, the bikini girls and some of the sunny scenery originally come from the artist's California beach background. I may also be that the colouring and the gestural posturing carry memories of such wonderfully eccentric painters like John Wesley or Bill Copley. McCarthy's visual world however (and ours, for that matter) is that of Nauman - not specifically but more in a general, mental way.

(3) Somehow these paintings are sort of abbreviations: abstracted formulations of figures - or constructions of diversions only. They are mysteriously beautiful as well. Look at the slender cross-legged girl in Baked, and take your time. The painting seems atmospheric, realistic. The body that is: but the face, fixed around the pink smile and wrapped in yellow hair, is put on the neck with very slight sideway shift. Another diversio, precariously held in place by the blue shadow under the chin. Such subtly twisting configurations account for the indescribable detailedness of this painting. That is how it asks to be viewed - as if one is looking, attentive and slow, at the intimate brushwork in a Robert Ryman painting. Thus the soft passage from blue to pink halfway the body is a spectacle of colour and luminosity, like the tender light licking around Ruben's nipple.

Rudi Fuchs