Art Papers

— By Laurence Hegarty
Sandra Scolnik’s recent show of paintings (CRG Gallery, March 18 – April 24) continues her project of dethroning the domestic scene. These tightly rendered, eerie little images of middle class interiors-often with a 1950’s patina-are peopled by carefully blocked gangs of replicants of the artist herself, attended by sundry family members and domestic pets. (Many of which also have their doppelgangers.) The size of the work is domestic also. Domestic in the sense that the painting’s don’t shoo the viewer away. One is invited in. Drawn closer, the better to become acquainted with the family arcanum. These paintings are domestic like a wallet photo, or like a snapshot from last Thanksgiving. Though here it is not the turkey that gets skewered. 

If domesticity is the mise-en-scene of the work, human presence, mostly Scolnik’s awkward, seemingly self-conscious human presence, is the plot. A typical strategy for the artist is to portray herself, simultaneously in a single painting, at different ages (child and parent, say), in different states of dress or undress and, most difficultly, in varying states of apprehension and bewilderment- presumably about the domestic set she has been cast into. As Scolnik struggles with this wicked little Imaginary, the centripetal pressure spins off many fragments of unrecognized or ruptured selves. 

Kathryn (1999) is a perfect example. Scolnik seizes on a Wellesian point of view for this family living room. A heroic depth of field encourages the ceiling, walls and floor to rush to their architectural conclusion in a far, dark corner. Downstage, caught in the gaze of the viewer, surrounded by inflexible perspective are the inhabitants of the room-the family. Some are young. Some older. Some are naked, some clothed. Some of the cast duplicate themselves, and many are probably the artist herself. Now, of course, the uncanny card gets played easily and well here. The familiar and the family are laden with dread. With Scolnik it appears to be mostly a dread about the uncertainty of place within the particular universe of the family. Generational place, relational place-are you the mother or the daughter?-get an airing to see just how stable they are. While that old saw of subjectivity, self and other, is shown up to be something of a shell game. 

Yet the other tack Scolnik deploys, the potential glue for all those fragments of self left standing around the living room, is narrative. Scolnik is facile at saturating a painting with narrative potential-in this case hinting at the creepy secrets behind the signs of domestic rectitude. There is no single element that directs the psychological tone of the narrative. But we cannot help noticing that within Kathryn there is an articulation of looks that suggests a familiarity, if not a comfort, with being the object of scrutiny. The way the big girl occupies the space unsettles, while the attention of the assembled family is suspect. Something comes across as monstrous. Whether that is a quality of the bulbous, depersonalized body at the painting’s center, or of her sinister little audience, it is hard to say. One wonders what might be the rationale for such a family conference, if that is what it is. Someone, one cannot help feeling, is going to be jailed, hospitalized or returned to the basement shackles when the show is over. Well yes, over- reading is always a possibility when narrative is alluded to but not nailed down. However, given the way Scolnik opens the door to the family narrative it is inevitable that these riffs will get played. 

Narrative also plays laterally, from one painting to another. In Dolly (1999), a title reverberating with uncertain sexuality, Scolnik extracts two characters from Kathryn. Two women in flatly rendered beige dresses, kidnapped by the artist from the top left of the first painting, now face each other across a middle class living room in the second painting. A play is set up between, on one hand, the quiet suppression of sexuality, the concealment of form and body that the rendering offers, and, on the other, the painting within the painting. That is the domesticated painting hanging above the couch. This painting, of the same person yet again (the artist?) posed in a tutu, evokes another story. Perhaps one of Lolita-ish passion. 

Scolnik mobilizes this lateral shift, from painting to painting, numerous times throughout the body of work on show. As if she were turning the object of her scrutiny to check out each hidden facet, and discovering that the facets do not join up. And while it is no surprise that family ends up being the unreconstructible gem, one could always argue that going for the family’s ideological jugular in this way is like shooting fish in a barrel. Then again, one could also probably find enough justification to reload and keep shooting.