Disdain? Petulance? Melancholy? Ennui? It's hard to say what emotions, exactly, animate the children and babies that gaze moodily from Nir Hod's paintings. In his studio, a two-room walk up in New York's Meatpacking District, they've been occupying more and more wall space, crowding out Hod's earlier work like usurping cuckoos. Now, even Hod himself has flown the nest for a new apartment 15 blocks or so north, paid for in part by his restless brood, whose enigmatic personalities have struck a chord -- and earned Hod a hotly tipped solo show at New York City's Paul Kasmin Gallery, running through June 18th. Like their progenitor, those babies will soon have new homes.
Where do they come from, these 'baby geniuses' with their world-weary mien and luxuriant coiffures? Some, it turns out, are modeled on the artist himself; others on celebrated geniuses like the designer Yves Saint Laurent, or the classical musician Glenn Gould, whose expressions suggest boredom or grievance with life's limitations. Looking at them, Hod saw a parallel with spoiled rich kids who live in their own realities but are needy and vulnerable nonetheless. 'When I was a child I was always pouting when I wasn't happy,' he recalls. 'It was just to get attention, but it's so interesting and powerful to see it on a child because it conveys such self-awareness.'
There are other influences, too. With their pallid complexions and cigarettes dangling from limp hands, these children could be the progeny of the effete villains of classic Hollywood movies -- or Oscar Wilde. You expect a bon mot to escape their lips at any second. And the smoky backgrounds, the browns and mauves, capture the kitsch quality of child portraiture popular in Israel when Hod was growing up there in the 1970s. He left Israel for New York in 1999, shortly before his 30th birthday, and after having established himself as the resident provocateur of Israeli art with works exploring the tension between romanticism and reality that animates Israeli society. An early, controversial series of paintings of female Israeli soldiers included Hod himself, pony-tailed and glamorous, with a cell phone in one hand -- exaggeratedly campy and irreverent. Like an Israeli Jeff Koons, he blurs the boundaries between art star and rock star, often placing himself in the middle of his narratives. Much of his work is preoccupied with narcissism, beauty, and death -- concerns that were amplified by the photo-realist quality of his technique. He once planned on becoming a rock star with the express purpose of killing himself at the height of his fame, a fantasy he consummated in Broken Hearts, a painting of a young pop star, unconscious or possibly dead, a trace of cocaine around his nostrils. 'My paintings sometimes have something from dreams, not with their beauty and sweetness, but with their sadness and pain,' he says. 'It's something that breaks with the familiar.'
And despite appearances, there's something sad and even romantic about his baby geniuses, no matter how entitled they appear. Beyond the kitsch veneer, Hod has genuine affection for them, without which the paintings would just be cynical parodies. There's a sympathy at work that makes them more interesting, something in their defiance that makes them paradoxically fragile. Or, as Hod, puts it, 'All of them in some way want the love of their mother.'
Nir's Hot List
1. 'I'm planning to go to some far romantic place, calm and warm, a place that will fill my mind, my heart, and my soul with magic.'
2. 'Finally I found one of my favorite movies, Bitter Moon by Roman Polanski. I haven't watched it for nine years and can't wait to reacquaint myself with it.'
3. 'To eat, I like to go to Tatiana in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. It's ridiculous in such a good way. It's like traveling behind the mirror. '
4. 'I'm reading Richard Branson's Losing My Virginity. The guy is a genius.'
To see the full 2011 Hot List, click here.