Tableau vs. Still Image – Jonathan Gardner, “Nudes” at Corbett vs. Dempsey

The image of the female nude is arguably the closest thing the subject of painting has to a readymade. The recent exhibition on view in the West Wing at Corbett vs. Dempsey by Jonathan Gardner, Nudes, consists of just three paintings installed in the corner of the main space, otherwise occupied by an exhibition of Konrad Klapheck’s charcoal drawings. The images recall twentieth century favorites – namely Picabia, with hints of Magritte and Balthus, currently featured in a similarly titled exhibition Cats and Girls, on view at the Met. In each of the three images, Gardner sets up simple parameters that allow for an immediate read, but not a simple one. In an off-the-cuff throwback to an antiquated genre, it appears that the approach of artist as stylist, or rather painter as the painter of styles, presents surprisingly interesting challenge for Gardner. Of course the depiction is nothing new – we’ve seen a million of paintings on the subject – but these three hold strong. Undiluted by any satirical content, the paintings are direct, yet comic and complex; for this reason they are different. Walking a fine line between representation of a subject, and representation of a style, the three tableaus are not quite sexualized enough to be perverse, nor awkward enough to be sympathetic. Instead, the nudes represent a removed and distant caricature of painterly female representation of the teens and twenties, in particular – though sans personality, and without any symbolic content; purposefully emptied of any recognizable trait that would tie them to that context. Nude or otherwise, the figures are somehow ontological – in the sense that despite their seemingly forward appearance, they are a material that serves themselves. Just as the physicality of paint serves the formalist, the image of the girl Gardner paints is the subject of that painting. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor

Jonathan Gardner | Nude with Lemons, 2013. Oil on linen. 40 x 46 inches. Image courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey.

One distinction must be made before talking about the depictions in the paintings, and that is the difference between a tableau and a still image. Though instantaneously the same, the two deliver greatly different vectors and tangents – one belonging to the theatrical, and the other to the filmic. Both can and have belonged to painting, in many narrative instances – though only one belongs to Gardner. What the theatricality in his work implies is the spatialization of living actors, a wavering stillness that the performer has when trying to freeze a pose in real time. This is the sense we get while looking at Nude with Lemons and Tableau, installed side-by-side on a small wall, opposite The Lesson. In each instance, citrus fruits – another art historical quotation – are placed within the composition of the female figure. Certain elements recall still lives; a plate of lemons are scarcely placed at the bottom of an image of pale, pillowy limbs – malleable and soft a la Ingres; a swirled orange peel on a bar table carefully scattered with cigarettes, framed by two closely cropped girls clad in high socks and leopard flats. With the table tipped up, Gardner sites a perspective similar to Cezanne, as the painter moving, looking across as he looks down to capture multiple perspectives at once. Like the fruit, the nude is similarly relegated to the realm of objects.

Jonathan Gardner | The Lesson, 2013. Oil on linen, 30 x 22 inches. Image courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey.

The construction of The Lesson is itself is instructional, a guide of components that follow a purposefully outlandish and trivial allusion to Surrealism – or in other words, purposefully bad taste. The readymade is in this instance, as in the others, a reflection of the subject through the lens of style. In Gardner’s paintings, what was once often painted as opulent is portrayed as banal – and what was once seen as transcendental is decisively not divine. When you give Gardner lemons, he paints lemons.

Jonathan Gardner (b. 1982 Lexington, KY, lives in Chicago, IL) graduated with an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in 2010.

Stephanie Cristello is an artist, curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL.