Celeste Rapone crosses the river on the Jersey side in a new body of work
In the midst of a pandemic and approaching an age – 37 – where she knew she had to make a decision about whether or not to become a mother, artist Celeste Rapone found herself nostalgic for her childhood in suburban New Jersey. What if, rather than working as a gallery-represented painter and a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, her artistic career had failed, and instead she took transit from New Jersey to Manhattan every a few weeks to visit a museum or gallery exhibition? What if, rather than living with her husband, she still sneaked out of her parents’ house in the middle of the night for late-night cigarettes and sexual encounters with an Italian-American hottie with a six-pack of his high school? “I have all these wonderful memories of [Jersey]says Rapone. “My family is all there. But at the same time, I think there’s also a thought process going on with this show that’s like, ‘But what if I was still here? What if I hadn’t left?
In “Nightshade,” his first solo exhibition at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, Rapone presents nine large-scale paintings that exploit this possibility. Open until June 11, the show, which is rendered in dark, almost funereal colors, depicts Rapone’s self-proclaimed autobiographical avatars, who are twisted and crammed within the confines of compositions, engaged in activities such as arranging flowers while reading art magazines, taking New Jersey transit selfies with a phone covered in a reproduction of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” slicing garlic cloves with a razor blade, and smoking cigarettes at 3:14 a.m. The expressions on their faces, rather than radiating contentment, betray crippling fear, anxiety, and boredom, and on occasion, utter death. “A lot of the women I paint try too hard, and face a lot of doubts, and have a lot of pressure and expectations,” Rapone says. “I think there’s a lot of that in the underlying psyche when I think about the formal issues in paintings. It really becomes kind of a collision between formal consideration and that feeling of doubt and anxiety.
Because she does not work from sketches, Rapone generally tries to establish a formal constraint at the start of each work. For example, she chooses a color and tries to negotiate how she can create a dynamic composition within the limits of the hue. In black nightshade (2022), the eponymous work in the exhibition, it began with a desire to make a tomato-red painting and ended with a sophisticated mise en abyme that depicts a woman squinting to look through a frame created by her fingers a naked man lying in the enclosure of a painting which is also a garden overhanging a port. Rendered mostly in shades of carnelian red, the composition is interrupted by flashes of lighter colors – the orange buckets where the tomatoes are growing, the unbuttoned white shirt the woman is wearing, her bright pink thong. The painting is a narrative feast as poignant as the myth of Dido on a cliff overlooking the ocean, watching Aeneas depart from Carthage. The man, dressed in a jacket covered with reproductions of Caravaggio, has a particularly poised and calm gaze.
Another constraint Rapone experiments with is integrating a whole body into a composition rather than cropping parts to make it look sharp and pretty. In Romantics (2022), Rapone set out to do a beige painting that mimicked the beige interiors of his childhood home and ended up with a beige painting of a woman in gray Calvin Klein underwear, bent around her knees, wrapped in the muscular body of a man with a fashionable cut wearing a Guns N ‘Roses concert tank top. The woman stares with one piercing eye at the viewer from behind the veil of her hair and it is unclear where the female and male bodies begin or end, if they even have disparate parts in the first place. Beige is everywhere, in the marble on which the couple perches, in the vase and the leopard carpet, in the naked bodies. “This idea of confinement interests me, and women in these totally impossible positions,” Rapone says. Physically and metaphysically too, in a post-feminist world saturated with pornography.
What sets Rapone’s paintings apart, beyond their narrative complexity, is that they are so expertly rendered. Under his brush, banal objects like the foam cover on a hanger from the dry cleaners; the terrazzo table top on which a figure rests his body Purist (2022); the lace doily on a table The living room (2022) all have tactile and real qualities. Rapone notes that it can be very enjoyable to indulge in her extraordinary reproductive skill, but that she is also skeptical of the skill. “[These details] asks me questions, am I lacking in my skills, or is this what the painting really needs? ” she says. Sometimes, she says, she works on a pattern or detail for half a day, then steps back and says, “Shit. I shouldn’t have felt comfortable with that. She clears the section and starts over until she succeeds.
The exhibition contains no ambiguity as to where Rapone’s nostalgia for her suburban childhood has taken her. In muscle for rent (2022), a woman in a pink velvet tracksuit digs a deep black hole to nothingness in the middle of a soccer field. On the foot not sinking into the hole, a pigeon perches on a dirty heel. The composition is littered with trash from the suburban maternity ward, including a parking ticket, a bottle of water in a carry bag, a container of plants, the wrappers of Ricola natural herbal cough drops and the sachet of silica gel you get at the bottom of packaged seaweed, a popular snack for toddlers. “I’m going to be 37 and I haven’t made a decision about the kids yet,” Rapone says. “And the question starts to dig a little bit. I mean, I find a purpose in painting, but what is my purpose beyond that? Back in present-day New Jersey, Rapone has a niece and nephew, and a family she loves. “I feel so far from that,” she continues. “Both geographically here in Chicago, but also in terms of lifestyle.” If the show is any indication, when Rapone investigates the void of the future, she sees some things from her past. Tattoo necklaces, Chanel decals, Cherry 7UP bottles, Brazilian waxes, lace bras, leather sofas, hair bands, tote bags. Participants in culture, but not creators of it. She is her own seer, even if she doesn’t realize it yet.
To learn more about the exhibition, visit Marianne Boesky’s website.