An Intimate Portrait
Every kid made is to play the recorder. The universality of the recorder as child torture device is historically under-reported, but late Belgian painter James Ensor’s work doesn’t suffer from those same kind of gaffs; he laughs at them. In Skeleton Musicians, a drawing from 1888, Ensor depicts a skull (maybe his own) ready to blow its own school-mandated instrument with the same dead-eyed thumb-twiddling defeat one typically observes from the safe distance of a third-grade classroom window.
In Gladstone 64's new show, “James Ensor. An Intimate Portrait,” this striking composition is paired with The Skeleton in the Mirror (1890), which centers another bony noggin. This one admires itself amongst the mask collection hanging behind it. I imagine the faces of Gillian Wearing, Adrian Piper, and Cindy Sherman superimposed on the skull and decide that what makes Ensor’s work so contemporary is that it traffics in sophisticated disguises—the kind that don’t have to resemble anyone in particular to get in your head.
The exhibition troubles itself with showing off Ensor's most influential faces: Ensor as Surrealist; Ensor as portraitist; Ensor as Expressionist; Ensor as Fauvist; Ensor as a political cartoonist; Ensor at romance’s end. And, as Ensor surveys are often wont to do, the show arrives as the work was conceived: a hodgepodge of mixed messages and cross-meanings. How does one reasonably parse divisions in an archive that spans clown funerals, peach pits, Satan, striped beach tents, power ballads, plagues, beautiful women in profile, brawls, the Belgian seaside, God and temptation? These subjects all jostled for purchase in Ensor’s imagination, and they recall petty siblings relishing in parceling the estate of his bleeding entrails alongside the knives of the -isms. No doubt Ensor felt the tug of these competing demands in his lifetime, but we will never know exactly what the artist thought of all the schools that have come to claim him in death.
Despite a heavy helping of late-life fame, Ensor kept mostly to himself except for a small circle of friends—the kind of people who were sympathetic to his preference for the silences of his attic studio over that of the hushed crowd. The image of the brooding loner painting high on his own fuming fights the breadth of fantasy and emotion displayed in the pictures he made. No matter how absurd or Hieronymus Bosch-worthy the party gets, the subjects make no attempt to escape the madness but instead just glare, even bask, in the intricate and varied sauces of its hells. “James Ensor. An Intimate Portrait” baptizes you in all of Ensor’s sparkling facets, one drop at a time—and then leaves you to drown in the pool of his mania. —Kat Herriman
James Ensor, The Grotesque Singers (Les chanteursgrotesques), 1891. Oil on panel, 6 3/8 x 8 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 11 3/4 x 1 1/8 inches, framed. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery