Exemplifying truth in labeling, “Thomas Trosch: Paintings New and Old” presented a dozen paintings made between 2010 and 2017, along with two from 1993 and three dated 1996. Then and now, it’s been hard to know how to receive this work, which is almost ridiculously ambitious yet so eccentrically campy that some might dismiss it at vapid (or, worse, “idiotic,” as Benjamin Weissman worried in these pages in 1993). Perhaps as a result, Trosch has been shamefully neglected by the critics—myself included. His sheer incalcitrant originality has probably done his career as much harm as it’s done his art good.
Trosch’s early paintings conjure a Florine Stettheimer fantasy of Park Avenue society ladies—Stettheimer being the one obligatory reference on the rare occasions when Trosch has been discussed in print-which made it a happy coincidence that his show partly coincided with the Jewish Museum’s current retrospective of that also once—underrated painter. Stylistically, Trosch’s paintings of the 1990s seem a mash-up of irreconcilables: Although the subject matter and bright discordant palette really do owe something to Stettheimer’s, the paintings’ facture and persistent, gleeful grotesquery owe more to Philip Guston and even to Jean Dubuffet; Trosch’s people, like Guston’s, have a way of turning into cyclopean monsters. The elaborately composed settings might recall Roy Lichteinstein’s depopulated “Interiors” of the early 1990s, but they are painted with an insouciant messiness that disguises the fact that all the elements comprising them have in fact been organized with impressive clarity. Oh, and did I mention that Trosch’s early paintings also incorporate dialogue? Japanese lesson #23, 1993, features a lady being served teacakes while in the background a couple gazes at an enormous abstract painting. WOULD YOU LIKE TEA OR COFFEE? / COFFEE PLEASE / DO YOU NEED SUGAR AND MILK? / YES THANKS / I LIKE COFFEE BUT I DON’T TAKE SUGAR. / OH, REALLY / I TAKE MILK. I HATE BLACK COFFEE. NOW… THE MILK… AH I’VE REMEMBERED IT’S IN THE KITCHEN. WAIT A MINUTE. / I’LL COME TOO / PLEASE DON'T I’LL FETCH THE MILK. HAVE ANOTHER CAKE / THANK YOU I WILL. I LOVE JAPANESE CAKES / DO YOU LIKE ENGLISH CAKES AS WELL? / YES BUT THEY ARE A LITTLE DIFFERENT. This nugatory exchange is spelled out in an inverted triangle of speech bubbles that somehow jostle the brownish swirls of the painting within the painting and the eccentric shapes of the décor and figures in an orchestrated hubbub, all treated without a hierarchy of importance.
The new works are more compact than Trosch’s grand machines of the 1990s, and they eschew the inscriptions. But they are hardly less complex, just less brash. In them, the society dames of the earlier paintings have left their home turf to visit the Painter, imagined as a blond—pompadoured and bearded, usually bare-chested male animal with a brush. And yet the encounters don't seem sexually charged—maybe nothing this preposterous could possibly be sexy. The paint handling in these new works is even rawer and more luscious than ever—at times almost sensorially overwhelming, even when Trosch is at his most restrained, as in The Lady, the Artist, and the Octopus, 2017. Despite the title, I kept thinking that the lady must be the true artist here, and not just when she’s the one standing in front of the painting, for instance in The Unknown Masterpiece, 2017. In the scale of values implicit here, having fantastical clothes is more artistic than playacting masculinity, but still the question is raised: Who and what could painting possibly be for? Trosch’s humor has become less legible and more puzzling.