Celeste Rapone, "Detailing," oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Nathan Keay.

Starting small brush fires helps prevent devastation and encourages new growth. If you go to see her latest solo show “Controlled Burn,” at Corbett vs Dempsey, you’ll see Celeste Rapone successfully inviting renewal by setting herself ambitious standards, with a brand new set of glowing figurative paintings that undeniably smolder with energy.  

The figures in these large-scale oil paintings are playfully distorted (think giant elongated arms, or curled toes that wrap right around each other), and take up a large portion of the canvas, usually extending almost to the edges. Rapone has created richly colored environments, filled with exciting patterns and perspectives. These locations are sometimes vaguely mundane, like an upper balcony, a field of grass, the kitchen. Yet in other pieces they seem to be straight from the imagination; amorphous fields of blue and magenta, or a purple, all-marble room, populated by an assortment of accoutrements, ranging from harps and ancient roman busts, to walkman players and potted plants. In fact, there is no empty space in these paintings; every object, piece of furniture or article of clothing depicted, lives a double life as a tableau and as an abstract compositional tool. 

This is the kind of show that lends itself to well-groomed conversations about the works’  “relationship to Vermeer and vanitas still life”, while at the same time you could take your first date here for a chucklesome introduction to contemporary art. Rapone has conscientiously drawn from a long history of oil painting, while maintaining an approachable freshness that suggests genuine curiosity and personal investment. The gallery assistant at Corbett vs Dempsey probably sees people stopping twice before the same painting, and then circling back again. What will make you double take? Funny pop culture references? Surprising brush textures? Lush colors? The glowing veils of indirect painting? Or will it be trying to figure out the cubist leaning, mermaid-like, twisting of the figures themselves? 

Calling these figures “cartoonish” would probably be missing the fact that their positions seem too believable to have been made by someone not familiar with the rigors of figure drawing. Although the poses are not natural, they are strategically made to play into the geometrical composition of the overall piece. There are no added limbs, or outrageously imaginative joint placements, Rapone grounds her acrobatics in anatomy. Like in the Edo era woodblock tradition of Shunga eroticism, the twisting of the figure often explicitly allows for the viewer to take in all parts of the body. In fact, a certain salty element cannot be missed. Even when clothed, like the figure in “Captain”, the subject’s Patriots hoodie has a cutout for perky breasts to poke out. 

Celeste Rapone, “Controlled Burn,” oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Nathan Keay.

The title piece “Controlled Burn” eschews any doubt that these paintings have a relationship to the erotic. A woman lays on her back on a kitchen table in lacy green underwear, underneath the low hanging green lamplight of a tiffany style lamp. The figure herself appears to be deeply blushing. Unlike Degas’ nudes, she has not been caught unaware in a vulnerable state; unlike Manet’s Olympia, she is not unabashed.  The emotional state of this figure lies somewhere in an enigmatic middle between the two; she self-consciously seduces. And yet, this scene is disrupted from crossing over into the sexy by abrupt foreshortening and the prominence of the figures’ rather dirty feet. Instead of the kind of idealized nude so often found in the history of oil painting, I am reminded uncannily of “the Lamentation of Christ” by Mantega. 

Rapone’s focus is not just on the figure, however, and every part of the canvas feels attended to. Judging by the amount of texture on some of the canvases, it’s possible these paintings went through many iterations. Articulated items like Balenciaga shoes, a Lululemon sticker, a San Marzano tomato tin, or a Princess Diana tabloid, are not there to simply denote “shoe”, “sticker”, “tip jar” or “magazine”. Each thing creates a very intimate portrait with a certain time, a place, and realm of desire. 

Celeste Rapone, “Apex,” oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Nathan Keay.

For example, in “Apex” a halved “Silk” carton with new green sprouts, suns itself along the bottom of the balcony. This detail alone suggests stories of crafts made in boredom, and you are left wondering if this sunbather, surrounded by the zen accoutrements of self-care, is maybe just a little heartsick. Rapone has left clues hiding in plain sight, like in a Raymond Chandler novel, leading us into highly stylized and performative worlds, but ones which are not entirely without tenderness or complication.  

The range of forces at work make this show engaging. The juxtaposition and layering  of expressive brushstrokes and tight descriptive painting, the drama of light and dark values, and the suspicion that plentiful humor contains secret critical messages. Online these images look inviting, but the impact of scale is lost, and the character rich details are flattened. Go in person to really understand the amount of narrative Rapone packs into each piece. Notice the thick, glossy impasto of the spindly lemon tree in “Captain”, or the way the two lovers in “Spring Couple” are glazed transparently over their “Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe” reminiscent picnic grass.  Rapone’s gymnastic display of painting technique, calorific color palettes, and nuanced, emotionally toned images, generously exude energy.  I, for one, left excited to get back into the studio.