April 29th, 2007
Pia Fries


Pia Fries’s Loschaug suite, 2005-2007-eight paintings, on eleven wood panels in all, that together the artist considers a single workwas inspired by the naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a GermadDutch woman who at the turn of the eighteenth century made a two-year stay in Suriname, then a Dutch colony, today an independent nation on the northern Atlantic coast of South America. Merian went with a plan in mind: to conduct a study of the insects of the region, eventually  published in 1705 under the titleMetamorphosis insectorum  Surinamensium, full of her meticulous engravings of butterflies and  moths, beetles and bees, and of the specific plants with which they symbiotically live. A divorced mother in her early fifties, traveling with  her teenage daughter, and working on a self-generated project in an  entirely male-dominated field, Merian seems a sympathetically modern  figure, and indeed she has turned up in recent decades on German  currency and postage stamps-and, now, in Fries’s paintings. 

Fries stages each part of Loschaug as a face-off between two very  different modes of picture making. The starting point is Merian’s  painstaking engravings, whose exactness Fries preserves by using a  silk-screen process to print them, or images of the jacket of the modern  edition of them, directly on the wood panel, or, in one section, by  inserting them through elements of collage.  Then, often after applying a flat  white ground over parts of the field  while leaving large bands of the wood bare, Fries extrapolates from Merian’s  images in her own oils, making thick, creamy,’abstract swirls and daubs in  strong clean colors. Whether Merian’s descriptive drawing and Fries’s rougher  markings conflict or collaborate is for viewers to say, but I think the mood  here is basically appreciative. If, in their  size and bright color, Fries’s wide lines  and sharp ripples usually overpower  Merian’s more restrained images, they  also seem clearly inspired by them: It’s  not that Fries is using a twenty-firstcentury  painting style to redraw eighteenth-  century forms-that correlation  is too precise-but that her forms and  Merian’s harmonize. 

The most striking aspect of Fries’s  work is the thickness of the pigment,  which she applies with luxuriance when she chooses while always  preserving a basically flat ground against which these more baroque  areas stand out in high relief. InSchwarze Blumen “Erucarum  Ortus,” 2005, for example, a straight diagonal line of six yellow  spots humps up over the surface, each fat and stubby enough to make  a platform for a further coloring in of mottled reds. Like Gerhard  Richter, whose squeegee effects she sometimes echoes, Fries seems in  passages like this to denaturalize painting: Her abstract marks look  most like gestural expressionism, but are too deliberately posed, too  carefully built up, to act as spontaneous signs of a psychic state. At  the same time, if this sense of distance, of contrivance, points to the  painting’s life as a linguistic construct rather than either a mimetic  illusion or a vessel of emotion, the juxtaposition of Fries’s images  with Merian’s throws equal doubt on the linguistic role of modern  painting-for Merian’s have a clear purpose and function (and are  also very pretty), while it is much harder to say just what Fries’s language  articulates, beyond the pure pleasure of skillfully applied paint. There may be a kind of nostalgia here for the old clarity of representational images-and yet, as soon as that is said, it bounces back: for  Fries’s plump oils, whose material qualities she so stresses, have an  independent richness, while Merian’s strengths involve her ability to  copy. And so the dialogue between the two women goes rewardingly  back and forth.