By MATTHEW NASH
Approaching Gallery XIV from the street, one sees five small paintings by Michael Costello in the front window. These are brightly colored and amusingly straight-forward paintings of Sesame Street characters (Elmo, Grover and Ernie), a stack of Marshmallow Fluff containers and a stack of Spam cans. If one were to walk on by without entering the gallery, and only experience these small works, they might be left with the impression that this show is about pop culture, childhood fascinations or puppets.
With these paintings, however, Costello introduces us to his cast of characters. The bulk of his show speaks powerfully to human vulnerability, the loss of childhood innocence and the discomfort created when these sensibilities are merged.
Most of the 19 paintings and drawings in the exhibition feature nude figures, sometimes individuals and sometimes in pairs, posing with one of the three Muppets. Each person engages with the Sesame Street character in a different way, causing the posture of the toy to mimic the subject's feeling of vulnerability (or lack thereof) created by posing nude. In "Julien and Grover" the subject appears tense, his eyes are sad, and the Grover puppet rests in the crook of his arm, strangled. "Rachel and Elmo" shows a smiling woman hugging a puppet that seems almost surprised. Both Rachel and Julien hide behind their Muppets, revealing their bodies and yet holding the puppets as shields, not unlike a child might clutch a favorite toy when they are confronted by something unknown.
One of the most striking images in the show is "The Outsider," in which two figures, one male and one female, kneel with their backsides toward the viewer. Nestled between them sits the Elmo doll, eyes turned down, arms crossed in its lap, looking forlorn. The posture of the figures seems both aggressively blunt and shockingly vulnerable, and strongly evokes the paintings of Lucien Freud. The quality of the painting is quite trenchant here, and the creases of flesh in the female figure's foot seem more like wounds. With her face hidden, the puppet becomes our emotional guide in this scenario, and he looks very sad.
The two largest works in the exhibition do not, at first, seem to fit in with the rest of the show. While most of the works represent fairly direct relationships between the human figures and the puppets while creating a mix of adult vulnerability and childhood comfort, these two paintings reverse the equation and give a very sharp edge to the stories we tell children. "Sam with Eggs and Spam" features a grizzled, tattooed man sitting nude among cans of Spam. In his lap is a plate of eggs, both covering and implying genitalia. He appears to be offering the plate to the viewer, or daring us to expose him. Do you want Sam's eggs and spam?
In "Bound", Sam is tied to a table, surrounded by Troll dolls. Unlike the other paintings, which all feature a direct and traditional framing of the subjects, "Bound" tilts at odd angles and crops Sam's body in strange ways. The Troll dolls are unfinished, blending into the canvas and failing to materialize in the same way Costello's puppets do in the rest of the paintings. Is this a dream of Gulliver, a nightmare of office tchotchkes? Do these toys come alive at night and plan to capture their owners?
Michael Costello's paintings are not cute. They provoke, confront and attack as they merge the childish with the adult and the innocent with the experienced. They are childhood myths grown up and, therefore, uncomfortable mirrors on our own memories and perceptions of our maturity.
"Michael Costello & Tristan Govignon" is on view January 17 - February 29, 2008 at Gallery XIV.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Gallery XIV.