NY Arts Magazine, Reviews and Previews

Surreal Servitude: Sandra Scolnik at the CRG gallery

 — By Jason Murison
From the pages of Juxtapoz to galleries up and down the West 20s, there are a glut of surrealist image-makers out there at the moment. But Sandra Scolnik stands out. She appropriates classic surrealist images and strips them down, separating the fantasy image from its romantic baggage. Her paintings are visual equivalents of hypnosis used in a psychotherapy session.

Scolnik makes the best use of the dreamlike foil by turning her miniature paintings into theatre spaces. In the painting Breakfast in Bed II, both sides of the panel are cupped with curtains while stagehands direct Scolnik’s figures. In her recent exhibition at CRG in Chelsea, Scolnik presents three archetypes of woman, all as self portrait: Scolnik as grandmother, mother, and daughter, each distinguished by size and hair color. The viewer becomes trapped in a play of Sandra Scolniks, much like the scene in Being John Malkovich when Malkovich is trapped inside his own head.

Scolnik’s world consists of several haunting landscapes that look like a mixture of Henry Darger and Italian Renaissance altarpieces. Scolnick’s use of symbols play out the story of her own life. In this way the paintings resembles the work of the aging Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. Scolnik, like Carrington, to carves out an all-feminine space. Through her landscapes, Scolnik is in some way hinting at her relationship to Carrington. Her use of Darger, then, can be read as a subtle nod to Carrington’s outsider art image and the less-than-pious altarpieces that Scolnik employs as dollhouses can be seen as a reference to Carrington’s ambiguous mixture of Catholicism and the Occult. Clarifying this type of artistic influence helps to reassess the often heavy-handed use of the feminine in political and personal works. 

Each symbol points us to the personal narrative, and knowledge of Carrington enriches our reading of the works. One of the symbols employed by both artists is the use of the Moiri (the three goddesses of fate or destiny). This can be seen in Scolnik’s repetitive use the three figures of the grandmother, mother, and daughter. In each painting, the three characters play out an allegory of Scolnik’s past. Each painting contains scenes of serving and of being served. Middle-aged Scolniks serve elderly Scolniks in bed, young Scolniks serve middle-aged Scolniks at Christmas dinner tables. The symbol of the Moiri reveals makes all scenes have been fated: they are already played out. The services have begun and parties are in full-swing, and the viewer is not invited. We have crashed the party and stepped into intimate and awkward family moments, just as sinister as they are full of love.

Scolnik’s narratives hinge on the slippery nature of trust in family relationships, and she uses images of drunkenness to transform uncomfortable situations into easier ones, and vice versa. Wine bottles abound in these paintings, reflecting another of Carrington’s deep interests: alchemy. Carrington often employs the symbol of the table to represent her practice of the ancient art of (female) alchemy. Scolnik’s use is subtle but just as effective. Serving trays replace tables in her paintings. A dizzying display of these portable tables move through each painting, offering glasses full of wine from bottles just uncorked. In other paintings, empty bottles scatter the floor of houses and landscapes, and glasses litter abandoned tables.

By reading the symbols through a less well-known Surrealist painter like Carrington, Scolnik’s viewers can catch a glimpse of her life as she struggles to tell it in what seems like a whisper. What she we can just make out is this: we are just vessels for each continuing generation, in perpetual deference and servitude, and perhaps doomed to eternal repetition. Inebriation helps, and in a way, inebriation is as close to a surreal moment that anyone can get.