Victoria Gitman’s masterclass press release of an “All Is Surface: Twenty Years of Painting” retrospective shares that the exhibition owes its title to a line in John Ashbery’s 1974 poem, “Self-Portrait in a Mirror convex”. Ashbery’s text is also an homage – the title was taken from a 16th-century tondo painted by the Italian Mannerist Parmigianino, an image the poet first encountered in reproduction. Parmigianino’s work is notable for the way it depicted itself: its reflection is distorted by the curvature of the titular mirror, but the panel on which the image was created is also convex, producing a form of illusionism à la both ostensible and real. The domed stand – what writer Susan Stewart memorably called a “half-ball of wood” – contours what it represents. But even in the absence of this precautionary framing, it’s not hard to imagine how Gitman’s practice over the past two decades has concerned itself with the surface as convention and physical armature, the plane of l image serving to evoke the limits of both. All of the eerie still lifes spread across vast rooms at François Ghebaly were modestly scaled, reaching a maximum of fourteen and a half inches in height or width. All of the paintings were in oils on thick cardboard, unframed and subtly detached from the walls, casting faint shadows that affirmed something startling that delineated but also contradicted the sanctity of the unattached image.
Each work was a trompe-l’oeil appearance created by a multitude of minute strokes. The observation becomes material, the sedimentation of the process also a familiar allegory of the workshop (think of those gendered stories of creative work, like the Greek myth of Penelope). The earliest pieces, dating back to 2001, heralded Gitman’s enduring interest in histories of representation and women in particular (or, more accurately, their metonyms). A series called “A Beauty”, 2004-2008, focuses on women portrayed by male artists. In an example of homage that both usurps and reclaims the subject, a la Sherrie Levine, Gitman has recapitulated an 1815 Ingres drawing. Each line rests on the creamy surface (nineteenth-century paper transmuted into pigment); Gitman gives substance to Ingres’ delimitations, creating passages of pictorial density that embolden the fold of an eyelid or the contours of a high cheekbone. The under eyes and lips are particularly thin. Related pieces made around the same time zoom out, showing postcards of white-bordered paintings on a plain background. One work recreated an 1823 portrait of Madame Leblanc, also by Ingres, which currently hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The babysitter watches, completely in control, encircled by a long gold chain that gathers on itself atop a ruched black dress and densely patterned textile. Gitman stays close to his sources and faithfully reproduces their details, like how a ray of light reflects off someone’s iris or how it illuminates a piece of metal. Indeed, examples of “A Beauty” have been interspersed with other status presentation markers from the “On Display” series, 2001-2011, with which they overlap thematically. These works feature necklaces with ornate golden ornaments and gemstones. Costume and its narrative implications come to occupy Gitman’s paintings of handbags – the more elaborate the beads, the better, as this feature allows the artist to work on their myriad exquisite details – and vintage garments sourced from flea markets and online shops. While some parts, including one Untitled panel of 2021 which represents the scalloped edge of a fabric dazzled with eyelets and black sequins, always played with the relief effect of the layering of one material on another – as we saw in the Conceptual put in abyss accoutrements of Madame Leblanc and images of postcards – others displayed a more complete composition. Another glitter paint from 2021 was a prime example of this effect, with its camouflage-like glitter mosaic in silver, teal and hot pink. Other edge-to-edge images used fur, tangibly fluffy and full of stacks of texture where the density self-differentiated into single strands. Spotted and striped in a range of colors, they’ve forged a visual lexicon of style that draws on tropes of modernist abstraction, from monochrome to grid, as well as fashion’s ready-made obsolescence, sometimes indistinguishable from that of art.