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The subjects of Jim Herbert’s ten new bombastic paintings are young attractive Caucasians in throes of sexual passion. The seventy-two-year-old Brooklyn-based artist has focused on the youthful nude for years, not only in painting but also in filmmaking, and the cinematically sized canvases—most are ten by nine feet—are actually smaller than what he normally uses. In one work, a young man watches his lover stroke himself pleasurably; in another, a slender-bodied boy and girl (they look like teenagers) get undressed, comfortable in their skin and anxious to explore. Though a depiction of two autofellating boys in boxers is crude and disturbing, most of these paintings avoid the easy pitfalls of pornography by exhibiting sincere expressions ranging from fervor to tenderness to placidity.
Walking a fine line between titillation and sentimentality, Herbert’s scenes are, in part, foils for his luscious handling of acrylic paint. With vigorous strokes and sensuous curves shaped directly with his hands instead of brushes, each painting offers a dazzling mix of colors. Chaim Soutine’s meaty still lifes and Cecily Brown’s explicit abstractions come to mind, but rather than hiding eroticism under layers of paint, as Brown does, Herbert puts it on full view. At the same time, no one’s putting on a show.
Art-historical allusions run deep in works that juxtapose sex acts with views of nature. The golden sky, rugged mountains, and solitary tree behind a threesome in one piece evoke Thomas Cole, and the painting of a lone male spread languidly on a sofa under a seascape references classic odalisques and, perhaps, ocean scenes like Manet’s The “Kearsarge” at Boulogne, 1864. Even as historical, religious, and mythological painting gave way to secular themes in Western art, sexual desire, whether overt or sublimated, remained a primary psychological drive. Herbert’s paintings, as big as Rubens’s or Delacroix’s, present conceits of eternal youth and boundless pleasure, fleeting ideals that, like the glory of battle, few hold onto.