The New York City street scene seems too demanding a subject for a contemporary painting. One hardly sees it anymore. There is something about its profusion of characteristic details—the taxis, hydrants, and kiosks, the carts and vendors, the small bits of trash—that embarrasses the painter seeking a sense of new ideas and visions. The landscape of the city is visually outdated, and it doesn’t help that the characteristic view would have to contain kitschy depictions of itself, on all the magazines and posters we see everywhere. All these elements shame the painter because they call out to his only partially sublimated desire for nostalgia and reverie. A repository of tradition, the street presents a problem for a practice worried about being judged traditional in the wrong way, in the sentimental and old-fashioned way.
While neither sentimental nor old-fashioned, Marvin Gates’s paintings are decidedly engaged with tradition. Part of the paintings’ appeal lies in the difficulty of accounting for their style, or even identifying their genre. I think of them as modernist vanitas landscapes. They involve fragmentary urban scenes and well-dressed allegories, painted in a simplified, hard-edged manner similar to early American modernists like Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, and Gerald Murphy. Alongside this connoisseur’s list of painterly references, which could be expanded internationally to include Fernand Léger and Jean Hélion, one could cite early video games, international symbols, and Playmobil figurines as secondary inspirations. The result, somewhere between Balthus and Legos, is a body of work that’s at once reverent toward tradition and hard to locate within it. The question is, how does it work?
The simplifications in Gates’s paintings don’t exactly simplify things. Instead, the starkness provides a way for ordinary things to be themselves and also mysteriously otherwise. Hydrants are sculptures, people are mannequins, and a skull has a personality. Like his ambiguous abbreviations for objects, Gates’s spatial shorthand disrupts easy reading. Receding planes tip toward the viewer, volumes empty out, and distances shrink and grow unpredictably. Gates invites the viewer in only to confront her with bizarre disjunctions and anomalies. He builds trapdoors in Renaissance space.
This quintessentially modernist tactic cools down the emotional heat of the subject, Death. The drama enacted in the paintings, in which a sneaker-clad reaper takes to the streets of New York and ultimately disembodies in a funeral parlor, is rendered in a visual language suggesting a goal of order and rationality in figurative art that has long been absent from critical discourse. The series of four paintings is like a eulogy delivered in Esperanto.
In Head of the Driver the tableau is lit from above, though not by the bare light bulb we see hanging from the top edge of the picture. Its true, metaphysical light source, the affixed beam of death, saturates the scene in an even, pallid glow that plays tricks on the eyes. Take, for example, the shadow cast by the precisely rendered skull in the left foreground, which turns the front face of a jarringly fuchsia pedestal into a geometrically impossible plane. Or examine the shadow of the framed picture, which extends all the way down the wall and vanishes behind the improbably located hearse. The scheme is not so simple.
At the far end of the spectrum from the realistically rendered, proximal objects in Gates’s paintings—hands, handbags, sneakers, and skulls—lies the body in the hearse. It’s the most summarized object in the painting, an irregular geometric solid with a white cube for a head. It exists as something imagined inside the sealed space of the car, and, as a kind of modernist mummy, it makes sense. It is also very disturbing.
The hearse, for its part, is aimed between the black curtain and the pale blue wall. Curtain and wall, as well as the railing and the skull’s pedestal, lie parallel to the picture plane, framing a shallow frontal space into which the hearse seems unlikely to fit. Two assertions about the space of the painting collide, and the clarity with which both are rendered, the straightforward, hard-edged geometry of Gates’s style, makes the scene all the more discomforting. The hearse’s blue shadow is severed abruptly by the deeper blue-black between curtain and wall, creating, in that intermediary rear space, an evocation of death far creepier than any skull.
In Gates’s work, a complex narrative redeems the street scene. Precisely bright shapes render a tired subject new, and we get to reencounter the New York we all know. It’s all there, from the crosswalks to the high heels and overcoats, and we pay attention because death, with his hurried nonchalance, is continually making an appearance.