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Thomas Trosch at Fredericks & Freiser in Art in America

Thomas Trosch gained recognition in the 1990s for paintings that depict comically exaggerated society women chittering away in art-filled interiors, their dialogue conveyed in speech bubbles. For Trosch's recent exhibition at Fredericks & Freiser (his first solo show in New York since 2009), five large paintings from the '90s hung in the rear gallery. Musical Comedy Medley #7 (1996), which measures roughly six by five feet, was exemplary of this period. Five women with bulging eyes and immaculate, sculptural hairdos inhabit a setting that registers alternately as a boudoir, a poolside cabana, and a stage. At the top of the scene is a selection of trite phrases—such as which land is dreamier, arcadia or bohemia?—that suggest the figures are waxing poetic about life, art, and the pursuit of pleasure.

Of course, irony runs the risk of hardening into cynicism, and in recent years Trosch has moved away from caricature and cartoon tropes in favor of more nuanced methods. The main portion of the exhibition consisted of twelve modestly scaled works made between 2010 and 2017 that convey a relatively introspective approach, even if a subtle antagonizing of elite society remains. In The Lady, the Artist, and the Octopus (2017), a soiled and stained canvas serves as the backdrop for the most minimal composition in the show. Here we see a masked woman wearing a golden gown, a man in a beret with beet-red flesh holding a palette and a brush, and an octopus perched on a swiftly rendered platform. The cephalopod reaches over to engulf the man in a tangle of ink and tentacles. The scene suggests a studio visit gone sideways—the artist caught in a metaphysical quandary as his guest gazes on intrigued but detached. In this work and various others on view, Trosch acknowledges the layers of labor involved in painting: from the messy and material to the more service-oriented tasks, such as entertaining collectors, dealers, and curators.

The Unknown Masterpiece (2017) depicts two women in a crimson interior getting dressed. One poses in a shawl, while the other (resembling boozy Patsy from "Absolutely Fabulous") puts on a pair of cat-eye sunglasses, her hair in a golden beehive. Such figures in Trosch's recent works have an almost sad quality, as if they are mere extensions of their possessions; one wonders whether we would pay them any attention if they weren't ensconced in such decoration. In A Journey to the Moon (2017), a woman in a backless gown and purple gloves gazes at a creamy yellow moon from the window of a room cluttered with various baubles, objets, and furnishings. A mirror at the center of the space reveals little more than a thick purple haze.

Trosch has mastered the art of suggestion: one gets a sense of the ages and affects of the figures through dashes and globs of paint. He accomplishes the difficult task of marrying subject matter and formal execution, with the revisions and layers of paint becoming a corollary to the subjects' efforts to keep up appearances. Trosch folds labor and luxury together in his impastoed pictures, which, despite their encrusted surfaces, manage to feel fresh and alive.