New York

Jane Fine’s exhibition Glad All Over moves steadily upward, almost painting by painting, along a smooth but steep trajectory, from a coarse comedic wonderland to an epic painterly climax [Pierogi; September 11 – October 11, 2009]. In Fine’s work, both sides of the spectrum — the inky, silly, arbitrary hybrid painting-drawings and the more purposeful and introspective pieces – have their strong points. But amongst the latter, the majestic Over the Hump, 2009, and the self-portrait Family Outing, 2009, push beyond the merely “nifty” and “cool” aspects of the endlessly referenced and excessively influential cartoon/comic subculture. Out of that cultural stew, Fine distills some powerful motifs and strains that probe the depths of humanity and grim reality. Her works go a long way in explaining the seemingly inherent need for caricature in all its forms.

There are so-called smart cartoons and cartoons geared toward kids. Sometimes the powers that be get it all screwed up and don’t realize that Robert Crumb

Can be asinine and SpongeBob transcendental – often it’s best to consult the nearest four-year-old. Looking at the inky filigree in many of Fine’s paintings, where the bleakness of George Herriman meets the over-the-top drippy-balloonish dumb fart noises of Don Martin, it’s clear that she understands this.  Meanwhile, the background of these monochromatic drawings could be Bikini Atoll or Bikini Bottom. In many of her ink drawing/acrylic hybrids, this dichotomy is intriguing, but it also throws a wrench in the gravitas of iconography. The symbolism is somewhat elusive: mushroom clouds or flowers? Or just mushrooms?  We understand these liquid organic forms as essentially benevolent. In Fine’s more chimeric works A Fly Buzzed, 2008, and Party Car, 2009, the jarring DayGlo colors and the harsh contrast between the line of the marker and the smoothness of the acrylic brushstrokes/drips belie a crueler state of nature.

The charm of the show is partly due to the juxtaposition of images in various stages of development.  A series of eight small napkin-sized studies reveals the origins of Fine’s distinctive painting method. Here, squiggles, patches, and cacti of various stripes encrust a two-color glob of paint. While there is a mindless doodling quality to these pieces, thickly drawn shapes and patterns spreading across the small and contained flows of acrylic paint aesthetically explicate topography of drips and color swirls. A series of larger drawings investigates the nature of her mushroom/flower organisms – delicate but dense colored pencil drawings illustrate the morphology of these buds and spores with the combination of invented precision and logical fantasy of a medieval bestiary.

Whereas Sue Williams’ graphic, drawing-based paintings, for example, are overtly erotic, Fine’s works don’t fit a specific Freudian diagnosis. This may be for the best. In Over the Hump, she creates a literal monument out of her various tropes: nozzles and nails, stitches and telescopes. Who knows what they mean? Here, as in the work of Elizabeth Murray and Philip Guston, these elements achieve a poetic dignity by virtue of the fact that they have been consistently transformed into paint. They are no longer drawn, which is a relief—somehow you feel that you can take it a bit more seriously. Far from a cracked-out smurf village, Over the Hump impresses a feeling of the accretions of life. The balloons, wooden planks and radioactive drips have a strange universal resonance, which invites us to fill in our own personal meanings. Similarly, Family Outing—a painterly triple portrait of the artist, her husband, and her son—provides an intimate look at a nuclear family.

As seductive as Fine’s ink on acrylic conceit may be, it enforces a separation between foreground and background. As a result, many of the paintings seem like gels layered over a background. But the two powerful paintings Over the Hump and Family Outing transcend all that.

–Will Corwin