John Seal

Picture in Picture

30 Orchard Street
New York
Lower East Side
Jan 13th — Feb 20th

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This one’s for the connoisseurs. At John Seal’s “Picture in Picture,” you’ll find references to Claude Monet’s The Manneporte (Étretat) (1883), Henri Rousseau’s Exotic Landscape (1910) and René Magritte’s The Human Condition (1933–35). Magritte, of “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” infamy, might be the forefather of this exhibition; “the treachery of images” is certainly a fitting thesis here.

Pictures of pictures have existed for nearly four hundred years, according to the gallery, which locates the genre’s beginnings in 17th-century Antwerp. Its apotheosis—and, maybe, mind-bendingly, its opposite—was that impish, trickster fad of art history, trompe l’oeil, literally, “deceive the eye.” Trompe l’oeil here is taken to an uncanny, even cruel, extreme—if, like me, you were fooled and chagrined. Shadows tumble on the wind like loose pages from a book (all 2021) depicts an empty frame against a scarred white wall, a postcard-like image pinned in the center with a thumbtack, all rendered in oil paint. Similarly, Falling into the Present looks, first, to be a photoshopped photograph; then, a non-photoshopped-photograph; then, finally, the oil painting it actually is.

These paintings do make one wonder what a “good picture” is—can the buck stop at that kind of hypnagogic kick that comes from the realization of referent or deceit? Despite its straightforward composition, What joy comes to the hand that moves the scythe is indeed a good picture, imbued with a candle-lit glow and deep chiaroscuro of a contemporary Rembrandt. The puzzle it poses is linguistic: does the word what here confer an exclamation or a question? Is a scythe the thing that reaps or the thing that wounds? Is the title, therefore, an expression of pleasure in the capabilities of the hand or of the ennui felt in its limitations? —Lisa Yin Zhang

John Seal, You cannot see us us watching you, though we do, 2021. Oil on canvas, 33 x 25 inches.