Vincent Desiderio at Marlborough Chelsea

The art of Vincent Desiderio hinges between the frailty of life and the depth of the human spirit. He presents us with tragedy, beauty, bliss, and befuddlement, with unrestrained passion and supreme technique, and we are spellbound. There is quietness too, often in moments of truth, where freedom or failure hangs in the balance.

When looking at how Desiderio represents certain secondary and tertiary details in paint, we see a substantive push toward abstraction. In the background of “Spiegel im Spiegel” (2010), and in areas such as the lower left corner of “I Liberate” (2011), Desiderio challenges the limits of representation without losing hold of the facts.He braces us with poignant narratives, with stark realities, and then hits us with a cacophony of luminous and lively marks in roofing tar, shellac and oil paint that break down the elements into a more subconscious impression of the world around us. This push to a sort of gestural abstraction in the details is reminiscent of Édouard Manet, who also tested the tolerance and limits of representation.

The truth Desiderio extols, the hard facts of life, the things we wished were not true, are expressed with the hope that the reality of the truth will set us free. With works like “I Liberate,” we see tenderness, an unwavering desire to capture the unbridled emotions of the mentally ill – and we can witness this as if we were there, in the darkness of night illuminated in part by something like the headlights of a passing car.

Then there are the more subtle truths we see in “Mourning and Fecundity II” (2011) -- how wet ground can create precarious footing, as suggested in the tentative figure who braces against a tree as he plods across wet rocks and fallen leaves. After a few moments the somberness of the scene comes forth, the carrying of the dead woman by these Amish men looking for a burial site, and the fact that she will be interred in a harsh ground laced with roots and covered with rocks in the misty morning’s light.

One work for me in particular has an intense visceral effect because it is all about vulnerability. The lone soldier in “The Sniper” represents loneliness, waiting, exhaustion and fatigue as he sleeps, missing opportunity after opportunity to complete his task of killing as many as possible before he himself is located and shot. However, the calamity of the sniper's situation is made elegant and modern in the geometry of the composition, which is beautifully organized and executed.

Desiderio has a deep love and appreciation for art history, which is clearly visible in two works, “De Umbris Idearum” (2010) and “Self Portrait Before Orozco” (2010). In another painting, “Sink” (2010) (above), this reviewer was reminded of the seminal Pre-Raphaelite work by John Everett Millais titled “Ophelia” (1851-52). With “Laughing Woman” (2010), I was reminded of John Singer Sargent’s near black and white painting titled Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883-84). But these links are minor compared to the, at times, overwhelming visceral effects Desiderio achieves with both his subjects and his painting prowess. Vincent Desiderio is proof positive that great contemporary painters can create monumental representations that chronicle the intensity of life itself. - D. Dominick Lombardi

Marlborough Chelsea's Desiderio exhibit runs through October 15 at 545 West 25th Street.

Mr. Lombardi is an artist with representation at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York, a writer with Public Art and Ecology (Shanghai), Sculpture, and d'ART, and an independent curator.

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