The virtuosity and drama of Alisa Margolis’s paintings was tempered by this show’s title: Sha la-la-la-la. The trashy Europop refrain of the Dutch dance group Vengaboys’ song stuck in your head and superimposed itself over the explosions of colour that burst from the darkness of her canvases. At first glance, these works seemed to offer a joyfully hedonistic emptying of historically overdetermined tropes and subjects: Baroque vanitas motifs, Pop iconographies, the gestural furore of Art Informel, the various (Abstract) Expressionisms. On closer inspection, however, a notion of the medium emerged which, rather than celebrating the ecstatic experience of the Sublime, highlights it as a technical effect, as a piece of transcendental trickery.
First and foremost, however, Margolis’s paintings want to be exactly what they are: paintings in the emphatic sense. Showing its origins and its capabilities, hers is a style of painting that confidently carves out its place in history while shamelessly deploying technical skilfulness. Margolis builds up her pictures in glazes on black-primed canvas, constructing a painterly space that generates outlines, volumes, light and movement, but which always also remains surface, material and texture, constantly cutting back and forth between the registers of presence and representation. Combining Old Master techniques with the inherent dynamism of Action Painting: dripping and flowing colour transitions, glossy varnishes and highlights whose surface reflections break through the homogenous spaces of oil paint. Form is always also gesture here, figuration a mere momentary sediment of abstraction and vice versa.
Adaptively responding to the gallery’s layout, Margolis divided her works roughly into two groups: the first room – with the exception of the apotheosis of Ace and the Firebird (2012) – contained a group of still lifes that refer back to the Baroque vanitas motif of the floral bouquet. Yet here the photographic precision of Flemish still life painting exploded into dynamic colour spaces of flowers and sketchily mutating skulls (the latter clearly a Pop marker). Besides still lifes like fanclub (2012) and Untitled (Rolex) (2012), the second room was dominated by three large-format canvases showing live stage performances. Ornamented allusions to the costumes worn by dancers from the Ballets Russes in Rites of Spring (2012) and two portraits of Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose, titled Axl (2012) and 5 Axls (2012), submerged the rock star’s body in gestural light storms and overlapping movements. Here, details like rings, chains, armbands and tattoos stood out from the swirling colours in flashes of sharp focus.
These works’ rock concert setting is not a flourish chosen at random. On the one hand, it updates the aesthetic excesses of the Baroque age by transferring them to a contemporary experience of Rock transcendence. On the other, Margolis seems to use it to situate her concept of painting as a field of production with an analogue structure: as a setting whose extremely heightened presence doesn’t arise from some mystical logic of artistic inspiration. Instead, it’s the result of a systematic maximization of effects that actively use all the available painterly tricks within the historical repertoire. In Margolis’s work, then, technique and ecstasy appear not as opposites but as interdependent variables in the same equation. In this light, it made sense for the exhibition to be overlaid with the Vengaboys’ industrially-produced party beats – and for it to exhume Axl Rose, one of the great mainstays of stadium rock.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell