In The Playhouse, a 1921 short film, Buster Keaton buys a ticket outside an opera house and goes in. But the distinctions between exterior and interior quickly dissolve as do the basic boundaries of the self. Because Keaton isn’t only a ticket buyer. He’s also the conductor, musicians, actors, stagehand, and the audience, including an elderly woman and her husband, a child and nanny. The physical borders of the film’s world are even more unstable. A painted canvas wall of bricks crashes to the floor. Actors jump through a tear in a backdrop of two-dimensional waves. In a moment of crisis, Keaton takes a sledgehammer to a glass tank of water, unleashing an impossibly huge flood. Backstage center stage, audience—the spaces all slosh together.
These multiplying selves and collapsing borders in The Playhouse function as an inspiration and a template of sorts for Angela Dufresne’s new paintings, which evoke similar states of multiple exposure and spatial convergence. In previous work, Dufresne has inserted herself and people from her own life into cinematic and pop imagery, creating what she calls “bastard portraits.” In “Paintings and Pastorals,” she continues and expands this type of fusion, drawing on sculpture, painting, as well as her own earlier work. The referents, or triggers, are wide ranging—Watteau’s fêtes galantes, Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, among others.
In most instances, the paintings have been executed alla prima. Through these single, sustained sessions, Dufresne animates familiar subjects in unexpected ways, generating “cover” versions of her own as well as a sense of emotional urgency.
What begins as a riff expands, through layered association, to a dense, lushly symphonic scale. In Lady David-Rosemary Angeles in a Golden Swamp, the artist inverts the gender of Bernini’s biblical David, combining portraits of her mother and herself, and isolates the torquing figure against a backdrop inspired by an Albert Bierstadt landscape as well as trees from the Hudson Valley. An exploration of Tiépolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra turns into Banquette Concerto with Head; the balustrade in the background of the original Baroque painting becomes a rope bridge, the table centerpiece a severed head, an exploratory mark Condoleezza Rice. In Everybody’s Looking at Ava Gardner, You Too… the audience becomes the spectacle—the movie star’s presence suggested only by the staring faces.
Dufresne’s investigations emerge not from fandom or homage but the impulse to inhabit known material and discover unexpected points of connection. In merging contradictory or improbable elements—Buster Keaton at a film screening of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, for instance—Dufresne erases the lines between pop vernacular and fine art, spectator and performer, memory and imagination.
Liz Brown’s reviews and essays have appeared in Bookforum, Frieze Magazine, London Review of Books, Los Angeles Times, Paris Review Daily, and other publications.