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“Imitation of Life”–Stuart Netsky beneath the skin


It’s true that Stuart Netsky’s work is about time. But what he’s saying is more complicated than that, and those complications are what make his work resonate (image, one of Netsky’s nail polish on wood panel pieces from 1998, 5 3/4″ x 5 3/4″).


Netsky, whose 20-year retrospective, “Imitation of Life,” is at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, by using the body as a metaphor, does indeed explore time. But he also explores the relationship of what’s on the outside, be it skin or fashion or nail polish or a vacuum cleaner cozy, to what’s on the inside. And as he gets older, he has added to his arsenal of what ravages the body. These days, it’s not just disease, specifically HIV, but also age and sunburn (image, “Japanese Rock Garden,” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection).


Our vulnerability is expressed in all that focus on skin, and reflected in the fragility of the media–the peeling edges of the paint, the unreliability of foundation makeup and sunscreen, the instability of Valium caked to form a cherub’s face (“Cherub,” Valium, 2 3/4 inches (diameter) x 1 inch, 2006).


If you know his work, you know that Netsky also explores sexual identity. This is not to say that he’s a gay artist, although he is gay. He is an artist who uses that gay identity to explore just how slippery human identity is, another surface not to be trusted. His series of “What Should I Wear?” photos, in which he poses in different gender-bending outfits is classic work that still delivers its shock–and its joke (from the “What Should I Wear?” series, silver print, photo by Jim Graham–sorry about the horrible reflections).

That sense of fun is as much a hallmark of Netsky’s work as the sadness underneath. He knows how to put one over.


He holds on to that sense of humor in his knit and his sequin riffs on the most macho of artists. He delivers the shimmer of Mark Rothko’s transcendent pools of color with billboard flickers (giant sequins) fastened so they move with the air currents–Rothko in drag. He has a go at ultra tough-guy Barnett Newman’s hard-edged zips, converting them to cuddly knits. I finally decided of the two nods to Newman in the exhibit–the afghan and the limp scarf–I prefer the afghan, slouching like a body in a chair. He even pokes his knitting needles at mister muscle himself, Richard Serra (“Newman’s Vir Heronicus Sublimus,” wool, 1989).


But even recently, in a couple of paintings of enamel paint poured over aluminum, he whips it out and has a pissing contest with Jackson Pollack. Gotta love it. But his affect, some of his forms and his colors are Pop. And Netsky retains the issues he loves–the gorgeous surface with body issues suggested underneath (untitled, 60 x 60 inches, 2006).


I know Roberta’s going to be writing on this show–I bumped into her and Rob Matthews chatting at the gallery–so I’m stopping here. But I need to blow the guy a great big kiss. I think he’s a hoot and I take him very seriously (image, “Yarmulke,” 1995).


A Netsky show is also on tap at Locks Gallery, Feb. 3 to 28.