My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.
— King James James Bible
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s exhibit, entitled The Chiefest of Ten Thousand, at the sparkling new Nino Mier Gallery is as complex and open to interpretation as the Bible passage that the title comes from. Dupuy-Spencer (who is half Jewish and half Catholic) explores the mysteriousness of religion, friendship, love and sex in her large-scale paintings.
The first painting one encounters is the “The Chiefest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2) (2018, oil on linen, 105 x 96”), which shows the back of an androgynous figure engaged in cunnilingus. If one is heterosexual, one might assume the figure is that of a man. One would be wrong. It is two women who are pictured surrounded by cats watching them — one voyeuristic cat is humorously spread eagled on a window watching a nude female neighbor on her bed. A half-eaten apple, an empty glass, family pictures, clothes strewn around, a flower in a tacky vase without water, all haphazardly scattered about, provide a homey, cluttered and even a mundane touch to this intimate scenario. But then what does one make of the skull lurking at the bottom of the picture? This is reminiscent of the famously anxious Woody Allen’s movie “Love and Death” (his two preoccupations.) Does this imply that our fear of death drives us to seek love often through sex? Is this a secret rumination on the specter of death?
Dupuy-Spencer studied with the abstractionist painter Amy Sillman and the figurative painter Nicole Eisenman at Bard College, and her work reflects the influence of Eisenmen’s content as well as Sillman’s painterly gesture. Dupuy-Spencers’ “The Chiefest of Ten Thousand (Sarah 2)” can be seen as an homage to Eisenman’s, as it is quite similar to Eisenman’s “It Is So,” a painting also depicting two women having sex in a room filled with books, a flower in a vase, and a poster on the wall.
Like clues in a detective game, Dupuy-Spencer sprinkles text into the visual mix by including the titles of books, such as “THE CAT: A TALE OF FEMININE REDEMPTION,” which is a Romanian fairytale authored by a Swiss Jungian psychologist. The Princess of this tale is turned into a cat and can only be released if beheaded by the Emperor’s son (which happens, as it turns out!). Another clue is a book that is shown cropped, only revealing the name of the author (who is Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar known as a spiritual author). Philosophy, theology and psychology all have a place in the erudite narrative thread of these paintings. And like all those heady disciplines, these paintings only ask the big questions to which there are no definitive answers.
“Don’t Lose your Lover” (2018, 84” x 108” oil on linen) is an ambitious allegorical painting that depicts a vast burning landscape. Two lovers in the mid-distance kiss near their car. The hood is up, indicating car trouble. Over heated? Out of gas? Both are metaphors for what can go wrong with a relationship. They are surrounded by so many dangers. Not only are there two fires raging at opposite ends of the canvas, but there are lions and tigers and bears (oh my) around them, along with rats, skunks, deer (reminiscent of Bambi and that epic forest fire), wild and domesticated horses and mules bunched together at the forest below them. All the animals and the people seem unaware of each other. Dupuy-Spencer’s painting style here is brushy, and more anecdotal, suggesting forms rather than actually defining them.
To read the rest of Turner’s review, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/celeste-dupuy-spencers-chiefest-of-ten-thousand/
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