by Barry Schwabsky

Review of "The Impossible World of Stu Mead", The Horse Hospital, London
Artforum, December 1, 2009

Stu Mead's paintings touch the art world at a tangent. Not that he's exactly an outsider, having received a formal art education. But the Berlin-based American has a bigger reputation in "underground" culture than on the established art scene. Maybe that's because his paintings are unabashedly (one could even say sincerely) about their subject matter rather than about art. That the subject matter Mead is drawn to is entirely disreputable--girls, often conspicuously underage, as objects of desire--is a separate issue. From Francis Picabia through David Salle to John Currin, pornographic imagery has hardly been alien to contemporary painting, but the game has always been to detourne that imagery to specifically artistic ends even while drawing on its power to offend. Mead, by contrast, matter-of-factly concedes that his work is pornographic, describing his paintings as "masturbatory images." His foursquare compositions and often daintily rococo colors place these abject fantasies straight in front of us.

For some, the nonartistic intention behind Mead's works would disqualify them as art. But, intention aside, they are better art than most paintings made with self-conscious artistic intention. Compare the paintings that the German artist Martin Eder showed at Hauser & Wirth's plush quarters on Old Bond Street in London the same month Mead presented his work in the considerably more downmarket digs of the Horse Hospital: The subject matter was similar, centering around naked or nearly naked young women; the sullen-faced girl in Nacht (Night), 2009, whose virginal white dress doesn't manage to hide either her breasts or her
pudenda while giant fish swim in the aquarium behind her, or the one (perhaps the same?) who poses on a ladder reaching up to a romantically stormy sky in Aufstieg (Ascent), 2009, might well appeal to Mead's onanistic imagination. And yet in contrast with Mead's, Eder's work is all deniability. Its severe, impersonal style-- almost frighteningly professional--puts everything at a distance, including its own queasy content. Bad taste is so heavily emphasized--fluffy animals are the paintings' secondary theme, their style akin to the commercialized Surrealism of late Dali--that it must be a double dare to find simple kitsch rather than a sophisticated comment on kitsch, the kind of dare only the most naive viewer would take.

Mead's paintings, on the other hand, are just right for the naive viewer, at least as long as he (and
presumably it must be he) shares the artist's fantasies about young women. But it's not necessarily naive, nor is it necessary to share the artist's penchant, to be moved by the totally unnecessary tenderness with which Mead has depicted, say, a little girl asleep on a pile of hay being curiously observed by three swans whose beaks are presumably going to be put to unusual use (Swans, 2005). Everything is soft and misty--except for the intense concentration in the eyes of the birds, a strange effect that gives this painting its emotional richness: The artist communicates both the protectiveness and the aggression in his desire. He is somehow innocent in his prurience. And while some of Mead's humor is of the bathroom-joke-book level--e.g., in Sniffing Man, 2008--it can also touch on more engaging levels of perversity: Daddy Oh, 1999, in which a gaggle of Lolitas shit on Daddy's grave and piss on his tombstone, takes Mead's fascination with degradation to the point where his work might even be feminist despite itself. Or at least--if that is going a step too far--that it is art despite itself.

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