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Chris Klein at Bernarducci

Phantom of the Opera- Mask of the Red Death, 2019, a-c, 30 x 60 in. All images courtesy Bernaducci Gallery.

Chris Klein: Sartorial Rapture

Bernaducci Gallery

June 6 - July 6, 2019

By DONALD KUSPIT, June 2019

If a work of art is an “emotive symbol,” as Suzanne Langer famously argues in Feeling and Form, then “rapture” seems more to the point of “sartorial” in Chris Klein’s exhibition of nine paintings of theatrical costumes, titled “Sartorial Rapture.”  Klein’s operatic costumes symbolize—give majestic physical form, epic dramatic presence—to the emotions that the actors who wear them aspire to express:  the costumes are all make-believe, artifice, pretentious, but the emotions are real, inescapable, insistent.  To be an actor is to act out—not simply mechanically perform--an emotion as though possessed by it.  To wear one of Klein’s costumes—organically alive with color--is to be completely under the spell of the emotion it expresses:  to be overwhelmed by it, unable to repress it, unable to deny its reality.  In a sense, Klein’s expressive costumes act out the emotion for the actor, even as they suggest that he is consumed by it.  Their extravagant, luxurious, charismatic character makes them emotionally compelling, however off-putting, even intimidating their confrontational presence may be.  They compel the actor—or is it actress, for the costumes seem peculiarly bisexual, or at least indeterminately male or female (a man or woman could convincingly wear any of them, inhabit any of them as though it was a second skin)--to engage the emotion they symbolize, indeed, unconsciously become it and only it, against his or her conscious will.  Klein’s glorious, proud, sensational costumes, full of strange integrity, stand alone as an emotional statement in their own right, in no need of an actor or actress to wear them, for they act out the emotion they symbolize by giving it seductive aesthetic form. 

Romeo and Juliet, acrylic on canvas 24 x 48 in., 2018

And what is that emotion?  Fear of death.  Death informs every costume, its colorfulness a deception.  They dangle from their hangers like corpses in a morgue, as the black space in which they appear, like mirages in a desert, suggests.  Surrounded by blackness—it informs every costume, the way black death subliminally informs colorful life--they are tragically entombed.  They look like so many cast-off, outdated royal robes—or rather glorious rags, remnants of delusionally grand costumes, overdone role-playing, role-playing carried to a self-deceptive, ironically self-contradictory end.  For all the plays in which the wonderful costumes are used—they are performers in their own right--are tragedies of one kind or another:   A Brief Interlude, House of Montague, Misanthrope, Nutcracker, Backstage Mischief, Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets, all 2018 and Bermondsey Chic—Zandra Rose Collection No. 01, 2019 are in effect ghosts in a theatrical underworld.  They are so many skeletons, rag dolls in a bizarre farce, for the joke of death has played on them.  All the paintings are about the triumph of death—clearly triumphant in many of Shakespeare’s plays that the costumes were made for.  That death is the underlying (but not so hidden) theme of Klein’s splendid, brilliant pictures—that they are insidiously morbid, peculiarly fatalistic--is made transparently clear by the three works devoted to the Phantom of the Opera:  Phantom of the Opera—Carolotta, 2018, Phantom of the Opera, Mask of the Red Death, and Phantom of the Opera:  Curl of the Lip, Swirl of Gown, both 2019.  

Phantom of the Opera-Curl of Lip, Swirl of Gown, 2019, a-c, 60 x 36 in.

Death and sex are intertwined, inseparable in the Phantom of the Opera, a morbid love story of self- as well as social deception.  The costumes for that opera—for all the plays Klein’s costumes were made for, or allude to--are triumphs of erotic imagination, as the opera is.  The Phantom is a personification of death, as his disfigured face suggests—removing his mask, he shows himself to be death, all the more menacing and horrifying because he is uncannily alive.  Death is the phantom that stalks us, that appears on the stage of life, sometimes disguised by a mask, often enough without a mask, undisguised and inevitable.  Strange as it may seem to say so, Klein’s brilliant Phantom of the Opera triptych—the works belong together—are a peculiarly abstract reprise of the traditional theme of Death and the Maiden, famously rendered by Hans Baldung-Grien’s realistic painting of a male death stalking a virginal female (1509).  One might recall that the rapture of orgasm has been called the “little death,” suggesting that Klein’s rapturous paintings, with their fluid painterliness—like Chardin’s meticulous still lives, up close they show their painterly underpinning, that is, paradoxically fluid, unstable foundation of gestural ejaculate—hint at the death of theater.  For its grandeur has been reduced to a few costumes, hollow men in a wasteland, funereal gravestones for forgotten actors. Klein’s costumes are ghosts—figures given an afterlife by his high art. WM

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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