Two decades ago, it seemed as though every artist felt compelled to respond to the events of 9/11. Twenty years later, not so many had something to say about the Covid-19 pandemic. Two locally showing artists who did both used water to represent a shapeshifting threat not just to America, but the world. Korean transplant Jiyoun Lee-Lodge, in her Waterman figures, used an explosive deluge of water to immerse the bodies of her subjects and capture the personal effacement characteristic of Covid-19 in the context of pre-existing, social media-caused isolation. Meanwhile, veteran Midwesterner Gerald Purdy, who for some years has alternated between showing in Salt Lake and Portland, Oregon, used giant ocean rollers about to inundate some generic-but-emblematic, oblivious characters: a reference to the overall riskiness of modern life that he foregrounded in a timely fashion in his 2021 show at Phillips.
Two years later, Purdy is back at Phillips, where his scenic metaphors continue to evolve without visible improvement in the predicaments they illustrate. If life is a beach, it’s one where waves threaten to pounce at any moment. Even in their absence, the woman on the park bench, reading the Romance Novel, has her head full of dreams and her feet under water. The “free floating anxiety” that powers so much of Purdy’s vision takes other shapes as well, such as his urban rooftop paintings, which place small, mundane vignettes precariously atop of those ornamental Art Nouveau buildings characteristic of cities of a certain age, like Chicago. The title “Once Upon a Time” un-ironically describes a portrait of a typically unfashionable, not at all mythical gentleman in fedora and suit jacket, sitting at a cafe table with a newspaper in his pocket, a lone drink on the table, and certain disaster just beyond it. In “Vigil,” a similar table and chair appear abandoned, though the drink remains, and a dog peers over the edge as though waiting for its master to reappear. “Mad Passion,” meanwhile, features a dancing couple in formal attire dipping dangerously over the cornice of a less elaborate roof, while a third figure runs frantically towards them. Their possible passions, like their respective roles, are the viewer’s to imagine.
Aside from the immediate threat, Purdy’s anxiety, which is also ours, is masked by memories and feelings of nostalgia. Despite the passage of years, he still paints things as they looked in another time, lit by memory and imagination. These moments, too, are insulated by scenic structures that isolate and protect them. Consider “Southern Exposure,” in which a path in the foreground, a pair of palm trees, and a wire strung between them double the physical frame that holds the painting, erecting another within it. Captured therein are Purdy’s Aunt Delores in the yellow dress and his grandmother. They wear broad clouds for hats and have a confetti-colored dog on a leash. A rocket-propelled bird and an umbrella born aloft on the wind share the sky with banners, beachballs, and an array of presumably personal, symbolic objects. And what does the artist say? Purdy writes, “This is an affectionate painting about nostalgia, another time, and the warmth of the past.” A close look will reveal this mechanism in other works, like “Dude” and “Memoirs.”
Such scenes are often described, even by Purdy, as “narratives,” while painters such as Norman Rockwell, who work primarily in this vein, are labeled “illustrators.” But when contemplating a work like Rockwell’s “Shiner,” we immediately recognize the characters and situations and can imagine what came before and even guess what happens next. Rockwell’s girl with the black eye tells her story through the medium of her triumphant grin, while the consternation on the partially-visible face of the school’s principal and the resignation in her teacher’s body language suggest what is to come. In Purdy, on the other hand, such satisfying resolutions are denied us. Instead, story elements are broken apart and seemingly randomly recombined, so as to prevent their mental reassembly, or hijacking, into a specific fiction. Art, we might say, begins where dependable endings cease to apply.
Remarkably, in light of his age and how long Purdy has been creating such revelatory non-stories, it would appear that literary fiction has finally begun to catch up with him. Although it’s controversial in some quarters, many of today’s leading writers have rejected the conventions of conventional fiction: the practice of making up imaginary characters, then putting them through plausible but unlikely events. Instead, they tell stories based on their own lives: not biographies or memoirs, but narratives drawn from their own personal experience. It’s not hard to imagine Purdy, who portrays his friends and heroes and inserts them into actual places he’s been, doing something similar. For example, of “Herb and Larry with Mother-in-Law’s Tongue,” he says that’s Herb on the left and Larry on the right. The Mother-in-Law’s Tongue is the potted plant between them. Elsewhere, faces are copied from photographs he took himself. One person may even appear more than once in the same crowd.
Purdy still believes in stories and story-telling, though he readily admits that the stories he can tell today are fragmented and less satisfying: unequal in that regard to the antique classics that line the art museum’s walls. The compensations, however, include that they are our stories, the tales of our time, and sharing them makes us feel, in not entirely better, at least a little less anxious.
Gerald Purdy and Go Figure, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through May 13