NEW YORK: CRG GALLERY
— By MATTHEW BIRO
12 February -26 March 2005
With the renewed interest in figurative painting since the 1990s, certain interrelated strategies thot first appeared in surrealist painting in the 1920s and ‘30s have become more prominent as well. These strategies, which were combined so brilliantly in the work of Salvador Dali, for example, include illusionism, kitsch, academicism, the representation of sexuality and violence and art-historical citation. Recently, we have seen a return to these in the work of a number of figurative painters who have become well known over the last few years, for example, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and, more recently, Hillary Harkness.
Sandra Scolnik also falls into this more general category of contemporary, neo-surrealist figurative painting. However, her exhibition of small and medium-sized oil-on-wood paintings proves her to be an artist who must be understood in terms of her own considerable merits as well. Breakfast in Bed (2004) is typical of the works in the show in that it presents a figural group made up entirely of self-portraits. Here we see an alder Scolnik, nude from the waist up, being served wine in bed by six younger ghostly doubles in a curiously abstract bedroom. The family intimacy and sense of subterranean sexuality exuded by the scene contrasts with the ominous nature of the stage set-like bedroom as well as the prominent shadows, falling trays and menacing tree in the background. In addition, Scolnik’s evocation of the romantic theme of the doppelganger -the 19th-Century concept of a person’s uncanny double, whose sighting often presaged a terrible event -adds a sense of impending disaster or doom.
By bringing self-portraiture together with a focus on doppelgangers, Scolnik borrows one of the classic obsessions of surrealist pointing the bodies of women -and turns it inside out. Her pointings do’ not represent women as objects of either male desire or male fear (as do Dali’s, for example), but rather they examine women as primary saurces of both family and community.
None of this would matter, of course, were Scolnik not a good pointer. But she is; and because of ihis, her families and communities of doubles take on a hypnotic intensity. There is a painstaking and obsessive quality to Scolnik’s compositions and technique that seems intended to evoke the first hundred years of oil painting during the northern Renaissance, the religious and sometimes, supernatural art of Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Scolnik’s House III (2003-4) and House IV (2004-5) are beautifully painted panels that reveal more complex visions of Scolnik’s matriarchies. They both present cutaway views of a house with many rooms in which a multigenerational family of Scolniks – mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers -play out a set of repeating scenarios in a doll house-like space containing an overabundance of Christmas trees, birds, handbogs and bottles of wine. Reciprocal and gift-giving scenarios are enacted as well as those involving intoxication, domination and submission.
Landscape I (2004-5) is the show’s masterpiece. Showing most clearly Scolnik’s evocation of the supercharged realism of northern Renaissance art, Landscape depicts a garden of earthly delights inhabited by a single family. Here we see a still-more variegated organization of Scolnik doppelgangers and perhaps fewer signs of domination and submission. The image, however, is still uncanny and slightly menacing. The family histories it imagines seem transfigured through a painterly technique that evokes a lost artistic and religious past -a world that seems completely antithetical to the world of today.