These days, the narrative in art is becoming difficult to find. The argument can be made that all visual material has a story behind it regardless of its lack of descriptive subject matter, but as Roland Barthes and the wealth of literature that followed him would suggest, that is just a reflection of the viewer's past experiences. Even so, the work of three young artists living and working in Brooklyn today--Holly Coulis, Matthew Fisher, and Ridley Howard--testifies to the active continuation of the narrative painting tradition. These artists construct open-ended narratives of unguarded moments whose precise meanings are elusive. They demonstrate that subtle imagination can result in art that is as vital as that produced in a more stylistically flamboyant and conceptually aggressive manner.
Focusing entirely on the figure, Ms. Coulis, Mr. Fisher, and Mr. Howard demonstrate complex psychological relationships between the characters who inhabit their paintings. Ridley Howard's delicately rendered images show numerous encounters between men and women that seem like the daydreams of F. Scott Fitzgerald characters. A Manhattan Housing Authority complex across the East River in Famous Riverside View provides an expansive panorama for a young couple so that they may share a rare peaceful moment amidst the clamor of an otherwise kinetic city. Their beguilement by the obstinate buildings is understandable given the disarmingly lovely way in which the complex is depicted. Howard's paintings of boundless cityscapes trick the viewer into thinking they are of Dick and Nicole Diver's French Riviera* instead of the New York City that provides the inspiration for them.
Howard's narrative paintings bear a resemblance to classic American movie stills as well, in that they convey a sense of the grandiose nature of Hollywood romance. Everything is deliberately posed and visually scripted to emote a self-conscious elegance. The gracefully tilted head of a woman posing near a lit underground pool or the relaxed way in which a man controls a speedboat with one hand on the steering wheel and the other skimming the water are details that hint at the cultural import within Howard's paintings. The influence of the carefully constructed cinematic world in Howard's images is clear but the artist strives to return the viewer to his own fantasy through formalistic clues. Specifically, the awkward rendering of his subjects serves to disrupt the facile beauty of the scene and remind the viewer that this is, indeed, Mr. Howard's world. It is apparent also in the environments he depicts, which are often commonplace excerpts from his local surroundings, like a gated Brooklyn storefront in Untitled (Girl with Dog) , or the nondescript bridge in Duck Picture .
While Howard's paintings portray a slightly more melodramatic version of the inhabitable world, Holly Coulis's paintings are hyperbolic representations seemingly ungrounded in reality. This is due, in part to the curious interactions of the subjects in her paintings, which take place mostly between humans and animals. The tender, loving care focused on these animals makes the beasts the main subject of her work rather than ancillary characters. In Small Accompanists , a dog mimics the standing pose of her owner as best she can on her hind legs, resulting in a humorous illustration of the woman's behavior through the anthropomorphism of her pet. The deadpan expression and confrontational posture of the two figures makes you feel as if you are intruding upon an almost cabalistic moment--a kind of secret world in which the viewer has imposed him- or herself. The perched parakeet, flowering plant, and patterned carpet add to the enigma of the picture while hinting at a deep-rooted history between the various elements. There is also a reverse exchange of characteristics from animals to humans at work in Coulis's oeuvre, which is responsible for some of the more bizarre paintings. The Russians shows a woman draped in a luxurious fur coat holding her precious cub as if she were the matriarch in this bear family portrait, and in The Sirens a male figure swims with his bullish brethren. Coulis's fantastical scenes evoke a certain mystery of, and perhaps instructive confusion about, human nature.
Similarly relying upon the expressive qualities of transcendent situations, Matthew Fisher depicts impossibly beautiful settings as a backdrop for the human saga to unfold. Fisher's 19 th century French soldiers live in a world of platonic ideals. Typically in Fisher's paintings, there exists a relationship with truth, beauty, life and death through a visual metaphor such as a strategically placed butterfly or a cascading train of flower petals. In September Sky , a lovelorn soldier lies on a hilltop clutching the stem of a flower whose petals he has plucked in a round of "she loves me she loves me not." His extreme concentration on the object of his desire materializes in the form of a cloud above him that resembles a Playboy playmate. The entire painting is saturated with the notion of romantic love, an obsession that is projected onto the landscape in a terrestrial narrative. War is the farthest thing from this contemplative soldier's mind. The same feeling of longing for a more sublime alternative to combat is evident in Reverse Migration , where a soldier rows his boat peacefully with a heron perched on the bow. The soldier avoids social and temporal classification despite his indicative military attire because he is used as a vehicle to explore the universal themes of loneliness and indifference--abstract concepts that span cultural boundaries and time.
The work of these three artists requires the viewer to fill in the blanks, so to speak. You find yourself becoming engaged with the narratives and trying to figure what is going on exactly. In Ms. Coulis's, Mr. Fisher's, and Mr. Howard's paintings, a certain amount of interactive storytelling takes place in which a give-and-take between the artist and the viewer is required.
* from F. Scott Fitzgerald's, Tender is the Night